On Wednesday night, I attended a panel at 92Y Tribeca called “Young Women, Feminism and the Future: Third Wavers Then and Now.” It was convened to celebrate the 10th Anniversary of the publication of Manifesta, by Amy Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner, which the pair wrote together to draw attention to the ways that feminism was being done by a generation of women who had grown up with feminism “in the water.” Richards and Baumgardner were joined on the by Debbie Stoller, the editor in chief and co-founder of BUST magazine, and by Allison Wolfe, a musician, teacher and one of the founders of the Riot Grrl movement. Veronica Chambers, author of Kickboxing Geisha, was scheduled to speak as well, but was stuck in Europe thanks to Volcanopalooza 2010 (her absence meant that the panel was entirely composed of white women aged forty or older).
The panel began with a discussion how each woman had been raised – some in feminist households, and some not – and when they came to realize that they were feminists. It covered everything from how Riot Grrl began to the problems that the Third Wave managed to solve, and the challenges that remain for the next generation of feminists.
Toward the end of the panel I was astonished to hear Stoller, in a discussion of young feminists, say that “at 22, they’re a little young to have come up with their own thing yet.” Now, perhaps I misinterpreted her meaning. Perhaps, because I’m a 22-year-old feminist myself, I took her remark a little too personally. But I find it difficult to understand why Stoller, a feminist leader, would belittle the understanding and activism of the very same women she takes on as interns, the women who admire her and who are probably hurt and discouraged by her dismissal of their ideas and their commitment to feminism. Do we have everything figured out at 22? Of course not (does anyone, ever?) But we have a damn good idea. At 22, we have seen sexism and we have seen discrimination. We have seen that the world is not what it should and could be and are committed to changing that. Which is why it’s frustrating as hell to hear feminist leaders like Stoller dismiss and discourage us in one breath, and then turn around and wonder where all the young feminists have gone in the next.
Barely twenty-four hours before the panel, I was at a lunch discussion with Naomi Wolf that was convened by More magazine. I was the youngest person there by almost a decade, and one of the first questions asked when the floor was opened to questions was “where are the young women feminists these days?” I jumped in to defend my generation, conceding that yes, there are indeed women in their late teens and early or mid-twenties who are apathetic about feminism (as I’m sure there were in the 1970s, 80s and 90s). But for every apathetic young woman there is a fired up, passionate young feminist who is mad as hell about sexism. And she’s also probably mad as hell about, as Jessica said earlier in the week, working so hard for a movement that pretends she doesn’t exist.
So when Richards and Baumgardner said on Wednesday night that one of
the things that definitely hadn’t changed in the ten years since the
publication of Manifesta was inter-generational tension, I
thought, “no shit.”
One of the major themes that arose at the More luncheon was
gratitude: The older feminists – Second Wavers, women in their fifties
and sixties – didn’t feel that the women who came after them appreciated
all the hard work that the Second Wavers did, all the changes they had
brought about for the benefit of future generations. Salon‘s
Rebecca Traister, who is in her mid-thirties, wisely pointed out
that if young women aren’t living in constant fear of accidental
pregnancy and the specter of illegal back alley abortions, or aren’t
thinking twice about opening their own bank accounts, it’s a sign of
just how completely the Second Wave of feminism managed to change the
legal and cultural landscape of this country.
Closely connected to the feeling that young women aren’t grateful, it
seems, is the feeling that young women today are so entitled.
They’re ambitious and they speak their minds and sometimes it feels like
they’re doing that before they’ve paid their dues, and that seemed to
make the older women at the More event uncomfortable. But you know what?
You’re the ones who fought for a world where ambitious, outspoken young
women could speak their minds. You’re the ones who raised their
daughters to believe that they could do and be anything they wanted,
that it was their right not to be limited or defined by what society
said is right. So if we’re entitled, it’s because feminism taught us to
feel that being women didn’t make us inferior.
As for gratitude, while I can’t speak for every young feminist and
every young woman out there, I’m personally deeply grateful – and I know
I’m not the only one – for the farsighted vision and groundbreaking
work of the women who came before me. I’m grateful for Betty Friedan and
Gloria Steinem and Kathleen Hanna and Naomi Wolf and my own bad ass of a
mother and all the hundreds of thousands of unsung women who took to
the streets and demanded change so that women of my generation could
grow up in a world that looks so very different from the one they were
That said, it’s important to remember that the people whose lives
have been most improved by feminism are straight white middle-class and
wealthy women. Feminism has traditionally ignored or failed to meet the
needs of women who fall outside the boundaries of those categories, to
the detriment of the movement and of society at large. For example,
while abortion is legal, the Hyde Amendment makes it difficult for
low-income women to access it, meaning that the human right to control
one’s own body is essentially available only to those who can afford to
pay for it. Queer women are more likely to be raped than straight women,
and women of color are less likely to report a rape to authorities. Gay
marriage remains illegal in all but a few states. So while we’re
grateful for the work done by feminists who came before us, and for the
landmark changes to American law and culture that they helped to bring
about, we still have a long way to go.
We are grateful. We wouldn’t be here – in college or online speaking
our filthy free-thinking minds, or serving in the armed forces or
choosing if and when we have kids, or enjoying almost any of the
opportunities we enjoy today – if it weren’t for the visionaries who
came before us. We are grateful. Perhaps we don’t say it enough, but we
But here’s the thing about gratitude: It’s a two-way street. If you
want to be recognized and lauded and thanked for all the amazing work
you did, how about a little gratitude in return? How about recognizing
that young women are here, and we’re feminist, and we’re working our
butts off and getting results? That means acknowledging that your
pro-choice organizations run on the unpaid or barely-paid labor of
interns and volunteers, many of whom are young women. It means not
dismissing the internet as less profound than in-person activism, and
recognizing that sites like Feministing are the consciousness raising
groups of the 21st century. It means including the voices of
young women – women under the age of 40 or even under the age of 30 -
when you’re running a panel called “Young Women, Feminism and the
Future.” It means giving credit for the work that young
feminists are doing today, work that looks different to what you did in
the 70s, 80s and 90s, that is broader and more intersectional, but no
less valid or important.
Young feminists are grateful for the example set by the remarkable
women who blazed the trails that we now walk. But we have our own work
to do now, and we’re doing it. And we deserve – no, we demand – a little