Susan Faludi's recent article in Harper's, American Electra: Feminism's Ritual Matricide” is the latest attempt to characterize a movement as diverse as American feminism in terms of a single theme: the generational divide. Faludi argues:
No one who has been engaged in feminist politics and thought for any length of time can be oblivious to an abiding aspect of the modern women’s movement in America—that so often, and despite its many victories, it seems to falter along a “mother-daughter” divide. A generational breakdown underlies so many of the pathologies that have long disturbed American feminism—its fleeting mobilizations followed by long hibernations; its bitter divisions over sex; and its reflexive renunciation of its prior incarnations, its progenitors, even its very name. The contemporary women’s movement seems fated to fight a war on two fronts: alongside the battle of the sexes rages the battle of the ages.
The generational faultline Faludi describes is real but no more so than the divide between those who focus on gender above all else and those for whom gender politics are inextricably intertwined with issues of race/class /sexuality .
I'm convinced that Amanda Marcotte in her response to Faludi is correct that what appears as a generational divide may be really something far more mundane.
I think the causes are more mundane than dramatic differences in outlook between generations. I think women are basically like men have always been. We struggle for power.....because we struggle for power...Older people are worried, for good reasons, that our ageist society will push them out. Older people, for less honorable reasons, think they should be able to rest on their laurels a little bit and dismiss the opinions of younger people, who they see as less experienced and therefore uninteresting. Young people can be stubborn and not willing to learn from the experiences of their elders. Everyone’s self-interest gets in the way of communication.
There are just so many good jobs to go around, just so many leadership positions available. The Great Recession has exacerbated the problem—-fewer jobs for old folks to hang on to, fewer job openings for young people trying to get a foot in the door.
Granted this is complicated; women have often entered careers later in life than their male counterparts. At 66, if one has been a tenured professor for 35 years maybe it's time to make room for a younger scholar. But if the 66 year old has been in the position for only 20 years, one can understand the reluctance to retire. And then there are those women in positions of real power. What liberal feminist would want Nancy Pelosi to step down at the height of her career? We wouldn’t have gotten health care reform through without her. But if everyone hangs on, options for young women are few indeed.
And there are just so many leadership positions in feminist organizations. It is certainly understandable that older women would not want to give up running organizations in which they have invested so much. But if everyone hangs on, where are the opportunities for younger women to develop their leadership skills?
Faludi uses the 2009 NOW conference as one of the key examples to illustrate her point that older feminists just do not want to let go:
Fifty-five-year-old Kim Gandy’s presidency had lasted eight years. With her retirement came an opportunity that many NOW members, and in particular many younger members, found hopeful. The candidate who seemed to be in the lead was thirty-three-year-old Latifa Lyles, a charismatic speaker attuned to a youthful sensibility, a black woman who insisted on a more diverse constituency, a technologically savvy strategist who had doubled the organization’s Internet fund-raising and engaged the enthusiasm of a host of feminist bloggers.....
Just weeks before the convention, another candidate had jumped into the race, fifty-six-year-old Terry O’Neill, who made a point of representing the concerns of NOW’s older, more traditional constituency. She had enlisted two young women to run on her slate, but her campaign was geared to her boomer sisters: its rallying cry was a return to Sixties-style street activism, and its view of young feminist social networking ranged from tolerance to bewilderment.
I was one of Latifa Lyle’s supporters. I was bitterly disappointed by Latifa’s defeat and at the time saw this primarily though the generational lens. But there was more going on. There were real differences about how to handle the organization's deteriorating financial condition, and anger about the Clinton defeat was also a subtext in a variety of ways. The vast majority of NOW members were Clinton supporters and that included most of Latifa’s supporters and most of Terry’s supporters. But to the extent that there were NOW members who supported Obama rather than Clinton, most of them were backing Latifa. (Being an Obama supporter and a NOW activist was a challenge as I can personally attest.)
Finally, as is always the case in any kind of bitterly contested election, personal animosities were mapped onto the ideological/ political divides and disentangling the personal from the political was not so easy.
Faludi as an outsider to the organization was probably unaware of these other divisions and she exaggerated the generational dimension.
NOW is struggling to heal the generational divide. As Faludi reports, two young women, Allendra Letsome and Erin Matson, were part of Terry O’Neill’s team. I don’t know Allendra personally but I do know Erin and she is a dynamo. So the transfer to a new generation will occur, maybe not as I once would have liked, but it will occur. And at the 2010 conference many of the divisions appeared to have healed. Those of us who care deeply about NOW have no intention of abandoning the organization just because our candidate did not win.
Younger women are questioning whether it will matter if NOW continues to exist or withers away. From Slate’s Emily Bazelon:
I'm sorry to hear about NOW's generational split, even if I don't get why Faludi is blaming the younger women for it. I'd care more, though, if I thought that NOW was central to the lives of American women or even to political feminism. But it's not and hasn't been for a long time.
As a second wave feminist who thinks the continued existence of NOW really does matter, I hope Bazelon and her generation think the organization is worth taking over! We’ll see.
Katha Pollitt in her response to Faludi’s piece, “Feminist Mothers, Flapper Daughters?” writes: "young women in a hurry should use their fabulous social networking skills to start their own organizations.” When I read Pollitt, I’m usually nodding my head in agreement, but this is one of those rare exceptions.
It’s not so easy to start a new organization (especially a national organization). Also, I've begun to think we already have too many feminist/progressive organizations with overlapping agendas competing for the same foundation grants, targeting the same donors. NOW and other second wave organizations have resources and an extensive donor base. Rather than starting from scratch, I’d like to see a younger generation of feminist leaders (diverse in race, ethnicity and class) take over these organizations and reshape them so they connect with young feminist women and men.
Yes, there are the generational tensions Faludi describes which will complicate the transition to new leadership. But Emily Bazelon, Courtney Martin and others at Feministing.com are certainly right that divisions in feminism cannot be explained in purely generational terms. A part of the story? Certainly. The whole story? Clearly not.