Young Versus Old Feminists

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I envy young feminists like Jessica Valenti, founder of Feministing and author of several books about feminism and women’s issues. She is only 30, but found her focus early on and has her whole life to make a name for herself. I’m almost thirty years older than she is and I struggle to feel like I’m relevant in the feminist universe. Even though I became a feminist when I was 19, I didn’t actively participate in the feminist movement and never even considered focusing on women’s studies until I went back to school in my fifties. (Of course, women’s studies didn’t really exist in 1970 when I first went to college.)

In my last post I reviewed my life to show how a woman can be a feminist and yet still act in non-feminist ways. Like with any ideology, it’s not always easy to act consistent with feminist values and principles. Especially if you’re a woman who was a little too young to be active in the feminist movement in the ’60s and ’70s. The life I lived wasn’t all that different from the one my mother lived: husband, wife, home and children.

"Older feminists [should] try to feel the pulse of the present instead of living in the past."

And yet my life also illustrates the problems that feminists identify as problematic: I didn’t finish school and establish a career so that I could be self-supporting as a divorcee and single mother. I became poorer after each divorce. I ended up in a stressful, dead-end job just to survive. I didn’t have a strong enough sense of myself to live alone and instead fell into one marriage after another. I wasn’t able to stretch myself thin enough to be a good wife, mother and fully-idealized individual.

However, I did keep on trying to break out of the strictures in which I found myself. I had enough guts to get out of marriages that weren’t meeting my needs. I kept taking classes along the way and did end up finally getting a degree. I managed to raise four daughters who didn’t repeat the mistakes I made. And throughout it all, I kept journals and wrote articles in which I explored what it meant to be a woman and a human being.

And yet, I look at young women today and I see that they have options I never thought I had. More of them are going to college, getting degrees, establishing careers, and marrying and having children later. They are entering male-identified fields in record numbers. They’re more savvy about feminist issues. They’re not afraid to live alone. They’re capable of supporting themselves. And they’re not afraid to embrace all that it means to be feminine.

And yet I can’t help but wonder if women have come as far as we’d like to think. One thing that is so appealing about the lives of young feminists is that they have yet to make the “mistakes” the rest of us made. They haven’t yet married (even though they may be cohabiting), they aren’t yet juggling children and careers, they haven’t gone through disabling divorces, they haven’t started to age and be seen as washed-up and irrelevant.

I suppose this sounds like sour grapes: just wait, you young women, you’ll get your comeuppance and then your lives won’t look as glamorous and put-together as they do now. I confess, there may be a little of that in my attitude. What I’m feeling these days is what a lot of people feel as they age: that young people are naive because they haven’t yet had to grapple with real problems.

Part of that mentality arises from the feeling older people have that they’ve been put up on the shelf. That their hard-won wisdom is ignored. That they have so much to offer, but no one is interested. I’ve noticed this when I look at how other Second Wave feminists are regarded. They may still have a certain cachet among their peers. But you don’t hear young feminists referring to them; it’s as if they’re all dead.

What I’m describing, I suppose, is the age-old generation gap.  Middle-aged and older people think that young people are know-it-alls; young people think that older people are out-of-touch with reality. Neither listens to the other. And I think that’s a shame. All too often young people don’t try to learn from their elders and older people give up trying to help. We just settle into our respective life boats and ride out the storms separately.

I’d like to propose that older feminists try to feel the pulse of the present instead of living in the past. That we try to see the world as it is today and not as it was forty years ago. After all, why should we expect our children (and grand-children!) to listen to what we have to say if we aren’t even living in this century? It’s not easy to put ourselves in another’s shoes, but we can’t afford to not try if we want to contribute to the dialogue.

You notice I put the burden on the older generation. That’s as it should be. We have to earn the respect of young people by showing that we respect–and are trying to understand–them. There’s no point in grumbling about how young people don’t listen. We need to have something worth listening to. And we need to expand our horizons to include not only the present, but the future.

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

2 thoughts on “Young Versus Old Feminists”

  1. I do hear younger feminists reference Second Wavers quite frequently, actually. Sometimes it’s to disagree or say they’re a bit out of touch, sure, but often it is with a lot of respect for what they accomplished and continue to do.

    I think one thing that perhaps bothers some younger feminists is that a small proportion of the older generation don’t appreciate how the Third Wave has changed the face of feminism and therefore haven’t adjusted their own activism accordingly. For example, Germaine Greer’s recent scathing attack on the South African runner whose gender is being questioned — she completely dismissed and even villainised trans and intersex women, calling them interlopers, men “pretending to be women.” Many Third Wavers find this kind of language and a refusal to include trans issues under the umbrella of feminism very harmful and completely out of touch. Greer must’ve known that this would anger younger feminists but her refusal to acknowledge their views and stoutly insist her way of thinking is “right” because she was one of the most influential feminists of her time does seem rather conscripted and narrow-minded.

    I’m not saying all older feminists are like Greer by any means, or that anyone should dismiss her astonishing contributions to the movement, but respect is a two-way street, as you’ve so eloquently pointed out here. I commend your ability to examine your evolving feminism through a critical lens.

    1. It’s good to hear that younger feminists appreciate older feminists–at least some of the time. It might be that Second Wave feminists aren’t saying as much as they used to. And certainly lack of media attention is the media’s fault, not theirs. Perhaps I’m just feeling lost in a sea of Third Wave voices. I appreciate your support!

      Thanks for your informative comment. I didn’t know that about Germaine Greer. I’ll have to look that up.

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