Electras talk back: Jennifer Baumgardner

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We’re appreciative to Jennifer Baumgardner for adding her two cents to end our week-long series  in response to Susan Faludi’s recent Harper’s article.

In the late 1990s, Phyllis Chesler wrote a book called Letters to a Young Feminist. It really rankled me at the time, in part because I was part of very large cohort of strong feminists creating abortion funds, zines, films, bands, and organizations while the book was speaking to an imaginary young woman who appeared to have lived under a rock for the last 20 years. This ditzy feminist needed chapters headed “Principles, Not Popularity” and found advice such as “Sex is not something that you only share with members of the opposite sex” surprising and helpful. In response to Chesler’s book, but also to a general sense that some older women were inappropriately anxious about younger women’s commitment to the liberation of all women, Amy Richards and I wrote a “Letter to An Older Feminist.”  We included it in our book Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future. Here’s a bit from the end of the chapter:

If younger women and older women were really talking, we would be able to look at one another and see not the fabulous Amazon or the controlling parental figure, the Girlies who need to be spoon-fed feminism, or the ingrates who ignore their forebears accomplishments. Instead, we would see the real, everyday women who make up this movement. The characters—young and old—whose lives show us where the movement needs to go. In other words, we would see each other.

More than ten years after Manifesta was published, I’m amazed by how hard it is for some people to see young feminists as they are. Susan Faludi’s recent article in Harper’s about how younger feminists disavow the serious political work of their elders in favor of blogging about one-night stands is a depressing reminder of that narrative. In truth, casting young feminists as apolitical consumerists is as accurate as saying that, after 40, a woman is more likely to be killed by a terrorist than find a husband.

As for Faludi’s piece, I have so many issues with it (shades of 90s-era Chesler) I don’t know quite where to begin. So, a list of a few trite and dated observations from the article and my thoughts follow:

1)   It’s not accurate to contrast the (admittedly amusing) blogger Slut Machine with Linda Hirshman, author of Get to Work. Why didn’t Hirshman/Faludi take on Rebecca Traister as a typical young feminist? She is in her early thirties and just wrote an incredible book about the 2008 elections called Big Girls Don’t Cry and is far more influential in the mainstream media than bloggers on Jezebel are. Or why not compare Hirshman to Farai Chideya, who is 40 and a brilliant analyst of pop culture and politics (and a regular contributor on NPR’s the Takeaway, along with various other venues)? Or Rinku Sen, who runs the Applied Research Center (which puts out Colorlines magazine)?

2)   Many, MANY women who like Lady Gaga are also political. I would put myself on that list. You don’t have to love or even get Gaga, but she is an important cultural shaman to me. Meanwhile, Faludi goes out of her way not to understand how electrifying Lady Gaga is. On just the most superficial analysis, here is a female (really young), totally in command of her self-presentation and her empire, who has figured out direct communication via new media with her enormous audience. She could be compared to Madonna (who also complicated and enriched feminism), but she (unlike Madonna) writes her own songs, is a much better singer and dancer, and goes deeply into trans and queer culture in ways that push conversations about those human rights much further.

3)   Which brings me to transfeminism. Feminism today (for younger people especially) is very engaged with freeing up masculinity for women and offering femininity to men. Those practices and consciousness will do something toward eradicating misogyny. I don’t find this to be a trivial concern.

4)   In the piece, a disputed NOW election looms large. Despite being handpicked by outgoing NOW president Kim Gandy, a young woman named Latifa Lyles was beaten by an older feminist named Terry O’Neill. I can’t speak to whether O’Neill beat Lyles fairly—I presume she did and politics is a rough game, even on the level of NOW. Still, there was a chance to have a young, very political, black woman in office and there was a push not to have that third wave face/sensibility represent NOW.

5)   The New School Gender Studies conference scenes are used to demonstrate that feminism is no longer taught at that school. Leaving aside the question of how much an elite, expensive urban private school reflects the wide diversity of feminist expressions and identities, I teach at The New School and my classes are feminist. I can think of a lot of other women and some men who also teach feminist classes. Moreover, my students have deepened and challenged my understanding of feminism, often using pop culture. (See the video for “Window Seat” by Erykah Badu, to start.)

The day I first heard about this piece, Amy Richards and I spoke at a luncheon for Emily’s List. The founders (all incredible—Ellen Malcolm, Judy Loeb, etc) are in the process of passing the torch to younger women at their organization. There was some concern (from Ellen, Judy, and others) that younger women don’t understand how much is still to be done before women are treated as equal to men. Ironically, I was seated at a table of twenty-something women who were engineers and had met at Brown. Their stories of what it’s like to be a young female engineer today were shocking and interesting—from the isolation (too few women) to the sexual harassment to the fact that they feel like they can’t quit because there are so few women and they might have to sacrifice themselves on the altar of changing the gender dynamics of that field. I want to hear more of that story about young feminism.  Don’t you?

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3 Comments

  1. Posted October 1, 2010 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    There’s a covetousness of the message at play here. Second-wavers don’t want to see change, because many people want go down in history in textbooks, books, or in concrete. People want to live forever, and they need to focus more on living for the present.

  2. Posted October 1, 2010 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    Noooo……Susan Faludi! We, the young feminists, are doing a lot and still see that our society has a long way to total justice and equality for all.

  3. Posted October 2, 2010 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

    With everything we all have to fight together, it’s sad to separate ourselves into competing interests that emerge as rigid dividing walls instead of fluid and often ever-changing perspectives.

    There is the fact that, obviously, society isn’t what it used to be. This is something which is always true for every generation and will impact how we perceive the world.

    To me, the most visible and important negative difference is that women are oversexualized as they have never been before. The sexual stakes, demands and expectations have gotten higher and higher for (cis, hereto) women. This impacts younger women to a greater degree in two different ways: first, they are subjected, psychologically, to an increasing barrage of messages pressuring them to “conform” by being sexually available more, more often, and in more complicated ways than was the case for previous generations, so that the message and the pressure become normalized, and therefore, invisible. This occurs at a critical stage in identity formation for young women, so that they have no previous standard of comparison within their own lifetimes. Secondly, they are punished to a greater extent, through mechanisms such as ostracism or denial of various types of opportunities both social and professional, should they not conform. Again, they have no fallback reference points to tell them they genuinely have choices, or to support those choices.

    I believe this must be the case when I look around me and see and hear the culture. When I was 20, just showing up in a bikini and enjoying sex was enough to make you an incredible girlfriend and make your partner the envy of everyone around him. Today, you have to not just wear makeup and laser off most of your facial, leg and armpit hair, you also have to remove all your pubic hair to be attractive. You must be a size zero (I was never less than a size 7, and many at the time considered me too thin). You cannot have imperfections of any kind, since plastic surgery is now widely available. Twenty years ago, it was a rarity, not something offered to girls at their sweet-sixteen parties. Moreover, if sex columnist Dan Savage is to be believed, oral sex is mandatory. You cannot refuse to do it, else you risk losing your relationship and will “deserve” such an outcome. You must also consent to anal sex and learn to enjoy it.
    These changes are far from trivial. Just as greater professional opportunities and personal freedoms are becoming available to women, other constraints emerge to take their place and impose their tyranny. I believe this is no coincidence. It’s also a bigger part of younger women’s lives than ours. We have to understand this and put it in context. Younger women are not being trivial. They are fighting on a very different battlefield than the one in which we found ourselves.

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