When I closed the advanced copy of Deborah Siegel's fascinating new book, Sisterhood Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild, I felt two things: relief and outrage.
First, the relief. Siegel's thorough history of the infighting that has gone on within the feminist movement contextualized my sense that creating a "whole movement" sometimes feels like herding cats. We all seem to agree on a few core projects that remain threatened or undone -- abortion rights, equal pay for equal work, sex education etc. But beyond that, things get very messy. Is formal work a necessary part of the "good life" for women or is it all about personal choice? Are high heels torture or play? Can marriage be a transformed institution or is it just another form of antiquated patriarchy marketed to the tune of $26 billion a year?
What I learned was that these fractures are nothing new. The feminist movement has always been colored by some pretty fantastic arguments over lifestyle, method, and morals. It doesn't necessary strengthen the movement to have so much contention, but it also isn't necessarily a bad thing. It can reinvigorate the debate, force new perspectives, shake things up. For example, when Jessica Valenti's lightening rod of a book, Full Frontal Feminism, was recently criticized by some bloggers of color for being white-washed, it created a renewed analysis of the way that racial and cultural differences are showing up in third wave feminism. However inaccurate I found the critique, it did make me reflect and analyze the issues in a new way.
And then for the outrage. While conflict is not a bad thing for feminism, I do think that the intergenerational divide definitively is. We have let it go on for far too long. Siegel's discussion of the tension between younger and older feminists brought up a lot of sad memories for me of feeling unsupported by women of the second wave. Some quick examples from my own life and the lives of some of my amazing young peers:
* Feminists of a wise age organize conferences for younger women without actually consulting their young, enthusiastic staff.
* Ms. magazine, the publication that I grew up watching my mother read and adore, rarely publishes articles by or about young women's issues and didn't even review Jessica's attempt to reinvigorate feminism: Full Frontal Feminism. I gave up pitching them long ago.
* Organized efforts to transform misogynist media (get women's bylines increased, demand better treatment of international issues etc.) rarely invite young women to the strategic planning sessions.
* Older women mistake younger women's ambitious (let's face it, often overly-ambitious) attitudes as evidence that they don't need mentoring. I recently heard an influential feminist say of a younger, female writer, "Oh, she doesn't need mentoring. Look at how capable she is!" Productivity doesn't equal wisdom.
There are some shining exceptions to these discouraging experiences. The Third Wave Foundation has been helped also the way by many passionate older women eager to walk their talk about handing over leadership. Women"s eNews publishes lots of young women and recently honored 20-year-old Shelby Knox for her work in sexual education. Choice USA honors women under 30 with awards and the exciting opportunity to meet Gloria Steinem.
Linda Hirshman recently countered an article I wrote on The American Prospect Online, but then emailed me personally to say that though she disagreed with me on the issue, she respected my work. We met up and walked around the Brooklyn Museum of Art and talked about philosophy, children, and art...I realized how totally hungry I was to be seen by the older generation of feminists, how moving it was to have been asked for my take from an older woman who was not my mother or mentor, but simply saw herself as an older feminist finding out what younger feminists are thinking.
There need to be more of these spontaneous meetings and motive-free conversations. There need to be more magazines that share readership among The Feminine Mystique and the Feminsting readers. There simply must be a way for younger women to express our gratitude loud and clear, so it is truly heard, and older women to make room to hear us out and give us optimistic advice.
Without listening to one another, we are many movements. In conversation -- intellectually-rigorous and truly empathic dialogue -- we could be one.
Courtney E. Martin is the author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body. You can read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.