Young women are the future of feminism

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
born into.

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
are.

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
credit.

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at chloesangyal.com

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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Join the Conversation

  • Dena

    I do wish older feminists realized that young feminists are here and fighting for more rights in this movement. While our activism has become more inclusive and is utilizing new forms of media, it does not mean that we “don’t care” or that we are apathetic or anything. It hurts to be a feminist activist and have some older feminists coming up to me saying that young feminists don’t do as much as them… we are mobilizing (e.g. look at young feminist-led blogs like Feministing, AbortionGang, and the F-Word).
    It would be really awesome for our contributions to the feminist movement to be acknowledged. Gratitude and acknowledgement definitely are not one-way streets.

  • Rachel

    Thank you for writing this! As a 22-year-old feminist myself, I often feel exactly this way (only probably not as eloquent.)

  • erin.patti

    Chloe– it is so angering and disheartening that you and so many other smart, talented, activist, young women are STILL having these experiences. It makes me hurt and angry. I have sat in rooms of meetings sponsored by well known feminist organizations and been the youngest person, even though I was well in my 30’s. I’ve worked in organizations and with partners who should have been inviting the same young women who were volunteering at registration to be on the panel on feminism or be heard and seen as experts on other topics.
    It’s sad to me that, in order to do effective constructive kick-ass work, young women must choose between paying their dues, or opting out of feminist organizations in order to do feminist work, whether paid or unpaid.
    And I couldn’t agree more that the young women who read as “entitled” to older women are simply speaking their minds in a world that those women created.

  • Athenia

    Are these older feminists not reading feminist blogs??? Is that the problem???

  • nonsequiteuse

    Speaking of ‘paying their dues’ –
    One point to raise when older feminists are bemoaning the lack of women in the movement is that many young women are busy paying their bills.
    At every age, all of us sacrifice something to make time for feminist action. When you are young, and especially when you are young in a down economy, sometimes you literally cannot afford to sacrifice time for the types of traditional activism older/more secure women participate in.
    If you are working two jobs, maybe the “only” think you have time to do is blog about things.
    If you are fortunate enough to have a fantastic entry-level job at a nonprofit, you are likely working 60 to 80 hours/week plus some nights and weekends. Your nonprofit employer can’t exactly subsidize your time off to go volunteer for somebody else’s nonprofit, and if you make an issue of it, there are 200 other young, enthusiastic, smart feminists ready to send in their resumes and take your place.
    Sometimes, the answer to where are all of the young feminists is that the young feminists are out being feminists on the job, working at bars and restaurants and reception desks and hauling baggage at the airport, blogging or facebooking or twittering when they can.
    When they get to the point at which they can afford to take a Friday off to go to a conference, or make it across town on a Tuesday for a 5:30 lecture, they’ll be there.
    As I said above, everybody sacrifices something. Many women eventually have to pick between spending time with families and/or children (raising the next generation of young feminists). Some get to the point at which “all” they can do is write a check. All of those places are valuable, and we don’t judge older women when they aren’t present for those reasons.
    Feminism is about respecting limits and trusting women as much as anything. Many young women are THERE, they just might not be right where YOU are right this instant, which is OK, because we need feminists to be EVERYWHERE.

  • Opheelia

    Thank you so much for articulating what I think a lot of us are feeling, and have felt for several years. When I was 22, I was a lot angrier than I am now at 27, and I had the time and the energy to channel that anger into action. The comments about apathy and lack of gratitude tell me that these older feminists aren’t making enough of an effort to connect with the third wave. Their refusal to recognize the internet as a tool for activism and consciousness raising will render them irrelevant to the modern movement if they’re not careful. (Sidenote: THANK YOU for making the connection between blogs and CR groups. When the comment about blogging less and working more was made, I was shocked that she couldn’t see the parallels.)
    So yes, yes, yes, to your points about entitlement, gratitude, and recognition. YES to young feminists!

  • teenfeministadvocate

    Maybe I am too sensitive to phrases like “women in their late teens and early or mid-twenties” but here’s the thing:
    I am not in my late teens. In fact, I just barely hit the mid-teens AND I have been a feminist since I was 3, and an activist since I was 9.
    And you can say that I grew up with “feminism in the water” and to some extent I did. But, a very vague kind of feminism. The broad spectrum of feminist-minded opinions I hold today I developed all by myself and no one pushed me to be an activist, that’s all me too.
    SO… YES! there are feminists in their early 20s and late teens that are doing great work, and y’all deserve credit for that. BUT – I would like to remind everyone that there is a generation of feminists even younger than y’all that are also fighting for justice.
    I have been working with Planned Parenthood for years now. I have organized meetings, awareness campaigns and spoken at panel discussions. And for every campaign I see through I am helped along by 10, 20, 30 other feminists my age.
    SO – let’s not pretend that you have to be in college to be a “young feminist” because I am tired of feeling like I am too young to be a “young femininst”.

  • konkonsn

    I don’t see the entitlement complaints belonging entirely to the feminist circle. I hear plenty of my elders tell me I don’t realize how easy I have it (and then gleefully point out the reason I must have returned to college after a year off was because I must have “realized how hard the real world is”).
    We’re feminists; we love sociology (ok, many of us do). So hopefully an explanation of, “Look, we were raised in this environment. Yes, we never had to grow up with this fear…we’re so far removed we can’t even imagine being denied a bank account. Aren’t you glad you got rid of that?”
    All seniors think their juniors don’t appreciate the work the seniors have done (I know…I’m a TA). If we frame this in a broader context, as a mindset that happens because of a natural gap in expectations, maybe at least some seniors will understand it’s not about being ungrateful.

  • Heather Aurelia

    Thank you for this brillant blog. I am a young feminist (21). Not only that but I connect my feminism with my spirituality (Pagan Feminist or Feminist Witch). I am working creating awareness around this area of feminism via blog. My blog is http://heatheraureliaspage.blogspot.com if you would like to check it out. I am starting out on it but I am hoping to keep it for a while.
    I am not so much worried about recognition from older feminists as much as recognition for the things I stand for and Feminist Paganism from people in general.

  • Comrade Kevin

    I hope that with time I do not gravitate to the same arguments about entitlement. To me they remind me of that old line about having to walk two miles in the snow uphill barefoot every morning to school.
    What these older Feminists are not doing is looking beyond their own accomplishments and ceasing to see the world the way it is. To some extent, I think every generation largely argues with itself, but to not see the future as inherently threatening is the first step. These second-wavers did produce a tremendous amount of good and we can, as you pointed out, appreciate their sacrifices and hard-won concessions, while also understanding its limitations.
    And I hope the next generation of Feminists will keep us honest in the same way, should we move in the same direction.

  • Rachel

    I’m so glad you commented! I’ve said this in other comments I’ve made, but I think it’s challenging to think of thinks that we can’t relate to in our own lives. I was definitely not raised in a “feminism in the water” type of home. My parents encouraged us to follow our dreams (cliche, I know), but the fact that women weren’t equal in society wasn’t even a blip on my radar until I was 19 or 20.
    Anyway, with that in mind, I forget that there are people younger than me who are doing amazing things for the movement as well! Thanks for reminding me of that fact =)

  • karen

    Great post, Chloe!
    There are older feminists who agree with you and who are cheering you on!
    See “Why is it so hard to pass the torch? Some thoughts on intergenerational change in the feminist movement” at
    http://www.the-next-stage.com
    Karen Bojar

  • Bri

    If any young feminists out there are interested in talking about reproductive rights, ending violence against women worldwide, and other issues pertaining specifically to our generation, I would encourage you to check out amplifyyourvoice.org. I’m a member there, and they do some excellent work informing and mobilizing young people.
    In a Time Magazine article this month about the 50th anniversary of the pill, I read this quotation, and loved it: “I might add, as Susan B. Anthony said, ‘Our job is not to make young women grateful. It’s to make them ungrateful so they keep going. Gratitude never radicalized anybody.'”
    The rest of that article is here if you would like to read it- I found it very informative:
    http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1983712-6,00.html#ixzz0mNEo58ZR

  • Roodies24

    Love this. Only critique: young women are the PRESENT, not the future!

  • Sandy

    From an “older” feminist (I’m 52): Well said and right on, Chloe!
    Much of what you say echoes my own feelings at your age: deep gratitude for the work of my grandmother and her generation of feminists for all their work to ensure my right to vote — something I could well have taken for granted as a “given” had I not learned what they endured to make that possible — but also a wish to take feminism in a different direction, more appropriate to the realities of my time.
    I am truly grateful for feminists of all ages and genders. So remember that, for every older woman who mutters about how younger feminists “don’t do enough,” there are plenty of others like me who rejoice for all you do to keep us moving forward towards a better, more equitable world.
    Rock on!

  • saniya

    Hmm… I’m torn. Maybe I’m romanticizing the past, but I feel like feminism was a stronger movement in decades past. It disgusts me how my academic studies and institutions are supposedly so liberal/radical/whatever and they are primarily full of women, yet the students rarely engage in conversations around feminism (even when prompted by instructors!). The level of apathy in our generation is absurd. And, I’m sorry, but blogging is not a very effective a medium for reaching the masses, especially when you are saying feminism needs to move beyond the white middle and upper classes. This whole internet as activism culture is a problem of our generation, not just feminists. The internet is a PIECE (not the focal point) of where we must channel our energy.
    Conversely, the author makes a VERY good point about the inclusion of younger women on panels and not so flippantly dismissing them. Why do the older feminists spend so much time complaining about the lack of young feminists TO us who already identify as feminist? Why don’t they work with us to engage younger women who are NOT involved in the movement? Share your tactics and your time with us, older feminists!!
    -25 y/o feminist & MSW student