An insightful way to look at the generation gap is to compare older and younger feminist activists. How are young feminists in the Third Wave different from the Second Wave feminists of the 1960s and 70s? The First Wave was of course the suffrage movement of the 19th century that culminated in women’s right to vote in 1920. Both generations agree that problems remain: women are most of the people who live in poverty and women still earn 78 cents for a man’s dollar, the US lacks social supports for working parents like paid leave, men dominate leadership positions such as 83% of Congress members are male, sexual and domestic violence is high, and reproductive freedom is being eroded. The media still has many more male characters, more males who speak, and females are five times as likely to be shown in sexy clothes.[i]
Friction and misunderstanding sometimes foment a generation gap as when the head of the abortion rights organization complained about young women’s lack of activism. There’s a “generation war” said Megan Austin, “there are few generalizations you can make about young feminists, except that our feminism is likely to be idiosyncratic, even contradictory, and we prefer it that way. It isn’t just irony and lipstick that separate us from Second Wavers: It’s an entire continent.”[ii] Anastasia Higginbotham (who worked for Girls, Inc.) told me, “We take ourselves seriously but have taken it further by trying to adapt the message with more humor and playfulness; this can be subversive.“
Feminist author Susan Faludi, age 51, worries about a “generational breakdown and “battle of the ages.”[iii] Older feminists accuse younger women of being narcissists who don’t care about politics, and “frivolous fashionistas” who view liberation and empowerment as the right to dress in miniskirts, and wear stiletto heels or a Wonderbra. The Second Wave’s realization that “The personal is political”—a social problem–devolved into the personal is simply personal.
Another older feminist, Paula Rothenberg wrote an article, “Snatched from the Jaws of Victory: Feminism Then and Now,” that the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s was about the deep forms of male and white privilege, calling for radical change. Feminism challenged the basic beliefs about women’s nature, and definition of beauty as looking like a Barbie doll in high heels and girdle. It fought for a woman’s right to choose her own destiny. It fought against the social and institutional inequality of women. Now Rothenberg sees girls wearing T-shirts labeled “Bitch” and “Stupid Girl,” wanting to look like Barbie dolls or dress in sexy skimpy clothes like Paris Hilton, Brittany Spears, Mariah Carey, and L’il Kim. Some teens get breast enlargement surgery as birthday gifts. Rothenberg observes,
We’ve been duped into trading social critique and collective action for a vision of feminism that offers us personal choice without social responsibility and without social context. Once upon a time the personal really was political. Today, it is simply personal. Racism, sexism, and class privilege are still alive and well. They frame our choices and define the meaning of what we choose.[iv]
Author and Professor Susan Douglas argues that these antifeminist attitudes are manufactured by media that defines women by their sexuality:[v]
Enlightened sexism is a manufacturing process that is constantly produced by the media. Its components—anxiety about female achievement; renewed and amplified objectification of young women’s bodies and faces; dual exploitation and punishment of female sexuality; dividing of women against each other by age, race and class; and rampant branding and consumerism—began to swirl around in the early 1990s, consolidating as the dark star it has become in the early 21st century.
In an article in the Los Angeles Times, Sandy Banks quotes a young woman who observes, “What’s wrong is that the ‘consumer culture’ has become such a defining force in young women’s search for identity. It’s what you’re wearing, what your weight is, rather than what you believe in, how you think.” The popular TV series and movie Sex in the City illustrates how status and joy comes from the brand of shoe and purse you display.[vi] Bitch Magazine was founded to comment on popular culture.[vii] The two young women and a male founder were recent college graduates in 1996 who were “pop culture obsessives” who wanted to do fun feminist analysis of sexism in the media. They compiled their favorite articles into a book called Bitchfest: Ten Years of Cultural Criticism from the Pages of Bitch Magazine, 2006.
Holly Morris explained the difference between the second and third wave feminists on her blog.[viii]
We were raised on pop culture…and pot tarts, not pop political movements. We know computers, not the Dewey decimal System, divorce not devotion, Email, gang-rape, rage, websites and the Webster Decision, androgyny and AIDS, Bikini Kill and the battered women’s movement. We know there is not one way to be; we embrace multiplicity and contradiction. We know about harassment and rape. We know how empowering fun can be. We know that feminism lets us know ourselves; and we know it has a history and a legacy…. It can be heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual, and most importantly, just plain sexual. Somewhere within this splinted kaleidoscope we exist.
A young feminist, Emily Heroy, writes in her blog “Gender Across Borders,” that there aren’t many young feminists who fight for abortion rights, or publically say they’re feminists, or consider progressive movements cool.[ix] Many in her generation believe feminism is about bra burning and hating men, but there are other young feminist and “we are loud.” Another blogger replies to the charge of missing in action that Second Wavers are looking in the wrong places for the wrong people.[x] She sees young feminist activity on college campuses, doing volunteer work and internships, participating in the Occupy movement, protecting the environment by working in community gardens, integrating feminism in civil rights and other progressive causes, and of course on the Internet. Ashthom reports most of her education about social justice issues was achieved online.
An older columnist for The Nation, Katha Pollitt wrote she’s tired of tiny-bopper words like “awesome;” their use of obscenities, referring to themselves as girls or chicks instead of women; their obsession with consumer ads, women’s magazines, pop culture and celebrities, and sometimes taking libertarianism too far.[xi] She thinks their lack of focus on political and governmental solutions such as childcare stems from growing up in an era where government is viewed as bad and public institutions like schools and medical care are problematic. Therefore, they look to individual and person solutions.[xii] On the other hand, she points out they do a lot of activist work, volunteering at rape crisis centers, mentoring teens, writing books by the dozen and hundreds of blogs. Anthologies by young feminists include Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism, Yes Means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power & a World Without Rape and The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities.[xiii]
Pollitt observes bloggers like Jezebel, Feministing, Pandagon, and Salon‘s Broadsheet bring many young women to feminism and post current feminist news. She believes young women today are much fiester than women who are in their early 40s. Third Wave feminists accuse the older generation of being stodgy, stuck in the past, lacking in humor, and hogging the power in organizations like the National Organization for Women (NOW). The first and largest Second Wave organization, founded in 1966, NOW reached out to young women with campaigns for Title IX and Love Your Body Campaign. NOW formed a Young Feminist Task Force in 2003, stating, “Our purpose is to help bring young women and men into feminist activism and give a greater voice to young feminists, who feel underrepresented at times.” NOW provides resources for college and high school chapters.[xiv]
A similar effort is The Feminist Majority Foundation’s Campus Program begun in 1997, “to inform young feminists about the very real threats to abortion access, women’s rights, affirmative action, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights posed by right-wing extremists. The Campus Program is built upon FMF’s philosophy that the most effective activism is informed activism, or study to action.”[xv] Another source for young feminists, Campus Progress is a website for “young people working for progressive change.”[xvi] One of its bloggers, Stephanie Herold points out the contributions of young feminists are expanding the movement to the Internet, using their “nuanced understanding of social media” to get the word out about established feminist organizations and to counteract the myth that feminism isn’t relevant or is a bad word.[xvii]
In response to the suggestion that older women should make way for the younger generation, writer Robin Morgan said, “Get your own damned torch. I’m still using mine.” The generational conflict came to a head in the NOW election for president, pitting a 33-year-old black woman, Latifa Lyles, against Terry O’Neill, 56. The latter won after what Katha Pollitt described as a “nasty campaign with generational insults both ways.” During the NOW conference she heard older women complain: “I’m so sick of these young women treating us like a bunch of old bags who need to get out of the way.” “I actually heard one of them say, ‘We don’t need Gloria Steinem feminists anymore!’ ” “They aren’t willing to do the kind of grass-roots campaigning we did. All they want to do is sit at their computers and blog.”
The Third Wave is the only stand-alone young feminist organization I know of, in contrast to youth task forces of NOW and the Feminist Majority. The Third Wave was organized by Rebecca Walker (daughter of writer Alice Walker) and Shannon Liss in 1996, with a part-time staff person. Amy Richards was also a leader who said she was tired of not being called on in second wave groups who “weren’t necessarily willing to let young women be leaders in the way that I think was needed.” She told me in a phone interview, “because we grew up in the wake of the second wave, we were afforded more opportunities and fell entitled to want and ask for more,”
Third Wave led some national activities, starting with a 1992 voter registration drive called ROAMS (Reaching Out Across Movements), tours to meet with social justice organizations to share strategies, and public education campaigns such as “I Spy Sexism” and “Why Vote?” But, its main focus is on funding feminist projects. The Third Wave’s mission is to conduct public education and provide technical assistance and funding to activist and research projects for young women, including leadership training, small business loans, and college scholarships.
Katie Claro, who interned for three months at the Third Wave Foundation reported on the organization’s website, “Third Wave has shown me that personal experiences, humor, and story-telling are just as important as theory; that the voices of traditionally marginalized folks matter and can make change; and that a different, more just world is possible.” She got interested in feminism when she was 16 and read Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future, by Amy Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner.
It was the first time I realized feminism could be cool. I began devouring any and all feminist media I could get my hands on: blogs like Feministe [founded in 2004 by four young women] and Jezebel, riot grrrl CDs, old Sassy magazines, and classic feminist texts. Soon I was a card-carrying, loud and proud feminist, majoring in Gender and Sexuality Studies at NYU and volunteering with reproductive justice organizations like Planned Parenthood and NARAL.[xviii]
Some refer to a Fourth Wave Feminism as in a blog begun in 2008 by Aviva Dove-Viebahn after “grappling with the continued gender inequity in America and the world.[xix]
I came to the horrifying realization that other women of my generation (women in their twenties and thirties) really did think that the women’s movement had already achieved what it sought to achieve…. I think we need a new movement, not just a vague idea of feminist values from an era gone by. I’m not saying that this movement hasn’t already started—there are women and men everywhere who still believe strongly in the tenets of feminism. … The world has changed a lot since the 1970s, and our battles are different, but there are definitely still very real battles to be fought and won. We are not all the same, we all have different needs and wants and creeds, but we can still present a unified front in the face of gender inequity.
A college student in Canada wrote to me about her changing attitudes towards feminism:
Recently I was assigned a paper for a philosophy class. The basis was “Is Feminism Dead?” I had never considered myself a feminist. Sure enough, my mom was a feminist. I was raised equal. I was fortunate to grow up with a strong upbringing, and feeling unequal was rare for me growing up even in such a diverse city as Chicago’s Southside, especially in the issue of gender. I kept up with the boys in sports and math. I joked about being a woman. I accepted that women specialize in some things and men in others. Still, I love what makes me a woman and feel no need to hide those qualities.
Sure enough, though, I did not consider myself a feminist. I wasn’t a man-hater. I wanted gender empowerment for all. I didn’t see myself as a powerful businesswoman, a lesbian, or any other generalization that comes with a stereotypical feminist. I felt disconnected from my mother in that way. She earns more than my father. I didn’t think this was unusual. My mother was the prime caregiver, yet she was the prime moneymaker. My mother knew that she was a powerful woman. She worked full time in college and received no help from her parents. She wanted to be a lawyer. She couldn’t; the financial means were not there. My mother is not a man-hater. She never raised me that way either. She is a feminist though. For that I am thankful.
However, I feel generational differences much like you were describing in your book Woman’s Culture in A New Era: A Feminist Revolution? I have friends who misunderstand the term “feminist.” If media, politics, and business are to blame for this I will never know. Realizing that I have been a feminist all along was a real shock to me. I am grateful for your book and will certainly share your ideas with my feminist-hating friends. I appreciate your time and effort you have spent on such a subject that is not projected as loudly as it should be. Still, I believe that organizations such as NOW are out of touch with the third generation and are buying into endorsements and bureaucratic BS of business. I guess where that is where my fight starts. I am proud to be a Third Generation Feminist. The Revolution will continue.
Lauran DeCeault, Illinois, university student in Quebec
Lauren noted how many young women in the US don’t see the need for the feminist movement and consider established organizations like NOW bureaucratic and out of touch.[xx]
What about young men? Professor Michael Kimmel describes “guyland,” a stage of development from adolescence to manhood inhabited by young men, referred to as “laddism” in the UK and Australia.[xxi] Their sexist motto is simple, “Bros before Hos.” This world revolves “almost exclusively around other guys.” These young men have an entitlement about being male but realize male privilege is eroding. They tend to be homophobic, anxious, competitive, lonely, confused, aimless, and desperate to prove their manhood, without adequate adult guidance. Kimmel concludes a new model of masculinity is needed that involves the courage to stand up for what’s right rather than conforming to their band of brothers.
When I asked seniors in a local high school about equal rights, the guys agreed with Kimmel, saying they were sick and tired of reverse discrimination, as when minorities are favored in college admission. White males are the only ones not allowed to discriminate, they said, as women can sue for sexual harassment at work and get millions of dollars. They don’t feel their generation discriminates on the basis of gender or ethnicity. Feminism doesn’t seem relevant to them, despite public comments like this one in 2009, when the Governor of Virginia remarked, “The dynamic new trend of working women and feminists … is ultimately detrimental to the family.”
The future trend is the ascendency of women, according to a provocative book The Decline of Men by Guy Garcia,[xxii] updated in an article by Hanna Rosin, “The End of Men.”[xxiii] She suggests postindustrial society that values “social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus” and a “post-heroic” management style suits women better than men. Three-quarters of the eight million jobs lost in the US Great Recession were men’s jobs, mostly in manufacturing. The Prime Minister of Iceland, Johanna Sigurdardottir, who campaigned to end the “age of testosterone”, blamed the banking crisis that precipitated it on men. Irish President Mary McAleese agreed that the country’s troubles were “testosterone driven” and in a poll 55% of Irish Times‘ readers agreed. Thus the number of women heads of state increasing by 250% since the recession of 2008.[xxiv] Usually, the greater the power of women, the greater a country’s economic success, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Hanna Rosin points out that in the US women are a majority of the workforce, the majority of university students–both undergraduate (57%) and graduate, as well as workers with managerial and professional jobs. Men’s college graduation rates stopped growing after the Vietnam War ended in the late 1970s.[xxv] With the disappearance of manufacturing jobs for men, women-headed families dominate working-class families and 40% of babies are born to unmarried mothers. As of 2011, 81% of prime working-age men were employed and they’re earning less, compared to 95% in 1969. Sixty-nine percent of women were employed. Rosin refers to a Super Bowl ad for Dodge Charger titled “Man’s Last Stand,” after a hen-pecked man says, “I will put the seat down, I will separate the recycling, I will carry your lipbalm,” but is empowered by owning the Charger. In Japan, young men who reject the work ethic of their fathers are called “herbivores,” while their female peers are “carnivores” or the “hunters.” in a rebuttal article to Rosin’s, Andrew Moore suggests men are risk takers and innovators and lead in technology fields.[xxvi]Hopefully we’re moving towards equality rather than reversal of power.
[i] The Geena Davis Institute on Gender and the Media. A 2005 study of G-rated movies and children’s TV. http://www.thegeenadavisinstitute.org/research.php
[iii] Susan Faludi, “American Electra: Feminism’s ritual matricide,” Harpers, October 2010.
A French film provides us a rare role model of a brave 10-year-old girl who scares away a wolf pack and an eagle, and isn’t afraid of a bear, all in her efforts to protect her favorite fox. The 2007 film is called The Fox and the Child.
[v] Susan J. Douglas. Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism’s Work is Done. Times Books, 2010.
[vi] Sandy Banks, “A Younger View of Feminism,” Los Angeles Times. April 20, 2009.
August 27, 2010 7:00 am
[x] Ashthom, “Amplify Your Voice” blog, October 31, 2011 http://www.amplifyyourvoice.org/u/ashthom/2011/10/31/Young-feminism-is-thriving
[xii] Joanna Chiu, “Young Feminists ‘Rankling The Old Guard’ and the Future of Feminism: A Conversation with Katha Pollitt,” the Nation,
January 6, 2011.
[xiii] Mako Fitts, “Where Do We Go From bell?” September 10, 2010. http://msmagazine.com/blog/blog/2010/09/10/where-do-we-go-from-bell/
[xvii] Stephanie Herold, Opinions, July 19, 2010
[xx] “Ask Amy” column on Feminist.com
Amy Richardson and Jennifer Baumgardner. Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000
Jennifer Baumgardner, Amy Richards, and Winona LaDuke. Grassroots: A Field Guide for Feminist Activism. 2004
Gayle Kimball, ed. Women’s Culture in a New Era: A Feminist Revolution? Scarecrow Press, 2005.
Craig Jeffrey and Jane Dyson, Eds.Telling Young Lives: Portraits of Global Youth.
[xxi] Michael Kimmel. Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. HarperCollins, 2008.
[xxii] Guy Garcia. The Decline of Men. Harper Perennial, 2008.
[xxiii] Hanna Rosin, “The End of Men,” The Atlantic Magazine, July 2010.
[xxiv] Claire Gordon, “Women Make Better Leaders Than Men, If you Give Them the Chance,” AOL Jobs, August 23, 2011.
[xxv] Mike Dorning, “The Slow Disappearance of the American Working Man,” Bloomberg Businessweek, August 24, 2011.
[xxvi] Andrew Moore, “The End of Men? Not Quite.” Askmen.com