02/26/2013 01:10 pm ET Updated Apr 28, 2013

The Old Mystique, and The New

Back in the 1980s -- when my cohort and I commenced from Smith College some forty years after Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique was already about 20 years old.

If it were a person, it would have been legally allowed to drink and vote, and for us its argument was old news. Friedan's battle cry spoke to our mothers' story (whether or not our mothers had hearkened to it); it was the tale of a generation gone by. Still, we stood in the direct lineage of Friedan and Steinem and many other women at Smith and the wider world who had gone before, and taught us well. So we stood, poised to launch, in what now seems, demographically, an oddly potent moment in history.

Our cohort had been born at the tail-end of the baby boom, sandwiched between feminism's heyday and the new, "post-feminist*" era, which we were about, unknowingly, to enter. The economy was not strong. The job market was tough. And the support network of feminist institutions many of us had assumed would be there for us, was fading away.

Across the country, bookstores and cafes, most of the publishers, community groups, and healthcare centers were disappearing; the vibrant, edgy, moving-and-organizing energy that had formed them was dissolving and dissipating. I remember feeling left out and betrayed as I bounced from coast to coast, looking for a job and a worthy focus. The sisterhood of "mentors" that I'd hoped to find, the "old girls' network," was missing in action. My first job out of college was selling ads for a feminist newspaper, on a mainly-commission basis. It was a desperate business.

From this distance, I can see that our predecessors were exhausted. Their numbers had thinned. It had been a long, brutal battle to extend the rights and privileges of our society to women, to achieve so much in a such a short span of time. They were fighting to hold the ground they'd claimed; they needed to get on with their lives.

But -- my cohort's truest values, our core selves, had been formed by this movement and by our close connection to it. Our mission, which we fully intended to fulfill, had been to extend it in every direction. Ours was not the feminism of shattering the glass ceiling, though; of partaking of the career and the credit card and the possibility both of acquiring "household help," and fighting for the rights of that help -- though some of us did those things. Nor was it, necessarily, pushing forward on the battleground as our predecessors had mapped it - that, anyway, was more and more impossible.

The failure of the ERA in 1982 had closed off a world of opportunities for social change as it was then envisioned. Still, what we sought was yet wider, broader; global but also personal; a feminism (regardless of what it was called) that would deeply inform and color our relationships, our work, our whole way of living in the world. It had to do with how we treated one another. With whom we loved and why, and what we ate and drank. With trauma, and dreams; healing and intimacy as well as the pragmatics like jobs, credit, and legal rights. It had to do with how we viewed the culture and the media; how we went about resolving differences and conflict; how we would allow ourselves to be portrayed. This loosely-held handful of filaments sent us tumbling, like seeds, into the cold winds of Backlash. We scattered in all directions.

As I look back on it now, we were a sort of seed-bomb, set to the task of taking root in hard ground, then tending the fragile, tender shoots of a different kind of liberation. We were striving toward a deeper freedom, one that might not bear fruit for a very long time. We worked in darkness, with scarce resources -- often only conviction. And often alone, though we knew, somewhere in our hearts, that the mission was shared.

We circled back, and did battle with the inner demons: depression, envy, rage, fear, discouragement, betrayal, addiction, and heartbreak. Our emotional lives and wounds; what we suspected our predecessors had had to ignore in the urgent heat of battle. But this next layer was going to have to be from the soul, built from the ground up, and it had to be thorough: no neglecting the details. The divisiveness and dogma of the organized women's movement - that which had made it vulnerable to assassination on the grounds of, say, "political correctness," was not for us. Nor was naked ambition for power, without commensurate consciousness about what values we were going to represent -- when and if we did become leaders.

Our tasks included: learning to be steadfast against the voices of opinion and judgment; to trust our own perceptions when faced with lies, censorship, ostracism, marginalization, denigration, ignorance and fear. We were called to be ever-watchful of our own triggers, the paths of self-sabotage ourselves; of reverting to masochism. We did this privately; in therapy; in meditation. With friends. By ending relationships, or grieving over their unwanted ends; by raising our children. By doing our work -- inner and outer, in daylight and at midnight; heralded or buried.

Fifty years after The Feminine Mystique and the group of Smith women who answered her survey about "the problem that has no name," our seed-cohort looks like a garden in all stages of bloom and tending. It spans the professions, and stages within them; and the world's humbler and less-credited work. It includes those who are powerful players in big organizations and have circled the globe; and also bookkeepers and beekeepers, engineers and poets and activists, and the memories of those who have died. It includes those who have left everything behind to start anew.

When I look at the young women who came along after us -- their struggles to lead lives true to themselves and the socially-engineered confusion that so often kicks up dust in their path - I see what a bold, brave, and difficult thing it is to come of age as a woman in this world, and how lucky we were to experience our legacy so strongly. There is plenty to do, and to be enraged about, especially if we have the privilege of taking our next breath -- and light and heat and food; more than a dollar a day to live on and enough compassion and vision to see suffering and injustice for what it is. But when rage gets us nowhere, sometimes there is no other remedy than to learn. Our work goes on. And so, these are some of our feminisms. There are others. And they are all very dear.

*see, for example, Susan Bolotin's 1982 article "Voices of the Post-Feminist Generation", published in the New York Times Magazine