On a perfect September evening, a group of Jewish teen girls in Ma’yan’s feminist leadership development program, the Research Training Internship, gathered for a retreat. Two girls shared that they had spent the day at a workshop on the global movement for girls’ education, and that one activity had involved sitting outside the New York Public Library reading and discussing an issue of Ms. Magazine. The way they talked about it—the combination of the content, the company, and the mild weather—was almost romantic, and deeply satisfying. And it gave me pleasure to know that these young women are seeking out and finding feminist community, with us at Ma’yan and in the wider world.
As a founder of Ms., and a prominent voice in the women’s rights movement, you have provided the foundation for these girls’ experience. And from where I stand, as a researcher and an educator working with Jewish teen girls, your legacy is thriving. But it seems that you are not so sure of this. In recent essays and interviews, you’ve been quoted characterizing younger women as demonstrating an “individualistic militancy,” failing to embrace the power of solidarity, or lacking the “collective passion” needed to transform the status quo. You’ve accused younger feminists of shortsightedness by not prioritizing policy change. Perhaps most seriously, you have expressed the concern that young women’s focus on identity politics will lead them to “commit matricide” by passing up the opportunity to elect Hillary Rodham Clinton as the first female President of the United States.
2015 is the year I turned 40: officially too old to claim membership in this rising generation of feminists. The cohort of women from my generation who made “post-feminism” famous embody some of the criticisms you’ve outlined, but we’re not feminism’s future – we’re its (maybe too-often ambivalent) present. But when I look at younger activists today, I see them enacting feminism in powerful and public ways, engaging with issues that concern them (and me, too) and using innovative platforms to challenge, educate, and connect to others. Here are some of the criticisms and fears you’ve named, and why I see things differently:
1. You claim that young women “lack collective passion,” and that they “see piercing their navels as a statement of freedom and inequality.” Setting aside that I’m pretty sure navel-piercing peaked as a trend when I was in college, this characterization simply doesn’t ring true to me. In fact, I see young feminists every day engaging in powerful collective action to protest injustice and demand change: they’re organizing SlutWalks and joining allied movements like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. They’re wearing scarlet letters to protest sexist high school dress codes or carrying dildos to protest a concealed carry gun law on their university campus (N.B.: humor has become a potent tool for this generation of feminists). They’re also building a thriving community of support, learning, and strategy-building in brand new virtual spaces.
Yes, as you rightly assert, sisterhood is powerful; and online, the flowers of feminist sisterhood are blooming year-round. Female entertainers (Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, Lena Dunham, Abi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, and Jill Soloway just to name a handful) are modeling creative collaboration and dismantling old stereotypes about cattiness and backbiting. Young women—including women of color (e.g., Issa Rae, Desiree Akhavan)—are summoning their creativity and resourcefulness to make art and distribute it online via Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and other new channels. Girls report that online feminism has become a real community of support and crucial training ground for them. As Jessica Valenti recently noted, online comments about intersectionality shared by young performers like Amanda Stenberg and Rowan Blanchard, are sharp, well-informed and accessible to a broad audience of online followers. Their videos plant seeds of substantive analysis that help young media consumers think more critically about the celebrity gossip and entertainment news that barrage them from every screen and street corner.
2. You argue that young women are failing feminism by not prioritizing policy-level solutions to sexist conditions. And those conditions certainly are demoralizing. As you have noted, your generation of feminist activists “put [y]ourselves on the line” over crucial issues from reproductive rights to pay equity, from violence against women to the leadership pipeline. I can only imagine how frustrating it must be to look at the world today and see how many of the same battles we are still fighting. But here’s the thing: these young women you wring your hands over are frustrated too. They’re putting themselves on the line too, though perhaps in different ways. You seem to feel that changing institutions through progressive policies is the most important and powerful route to change. Institutional change is important and necessary, but addressing policy is by no means the only route to social justice. Millennials and the youth of Gen Z didn’t just grow up with the disillusionment of Watergate and Vietnam, they’ve grown up in an era when government has become almost entirely inept and inactive, teetering on default, barely able to keep the doors open and the lights on in the halls of power. When the top 10% have received 100% of the income growth of the past 20 years, when white cops go free after shooting, choking, and mistreating unarmed black men, women, and even children, and when members of Congress openly threaten to shut down the federal government over its (already minimal) support for Planned Parenthood, is it any wonder that young people might be wary of governmental institutions or skeptical of legislative solutions? And if they prefer to direct their talents and energies towards individual healing or creative expression or cultural survival, who could blame them?
3. You warn that young women will “commit matricide” by “slicing and dicing purist ideologies” about intersectionality instead of recognizing the feminist credentials of the first viable female candidate for President, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Personally, I first gained admiration for Secretary Clinton when I learned the story of her 1969 graduation speech from Wellesley College. Instead of her prepared remarks, the young Hillary Rodham challenged statements offered by the previous speaker. Senator Edward Brooke, a supporter of the Vietnam War, had chosen to wag a finger at student activists whose anti-war protests had been sweeping college campuses across the country. When she took the podium, Rodham offered this response on behalf of her 400 classmates: “We’re not in the positions yet of leadership and power, but we do have that indispensable task of criticizing and constructive protest.” Defending Secretary Clinton, you disdain young women as “today’s young purists” and claim that you and your collaborators were fully onboard with that whole “multiple identities” thing. Unlike Brooke, you clearly stand on the same side of most issues with today’s young feminists. But in their insistence on intersectionality, I hear echoes of Hillary Rodham holding her elders to account. Because sisterhood is about accountability, too, and that means resisting the urge to dismiss or roll your eyes when some young upstart catches you unaware of your blind spots. Without accountability, “solidarity” is just means to an end; but with it, it’s a call to a deeper sense of collective responsibility and urgency—exactly the things you decry as missing from today’s young feminists.
As your feminist sister, I hope you will consider that when young women express their feminism in new or unexpected ways, it’s not meant to be a personal criticism or rejection. Beyonce wasn’t dissing Betty Friedan when she decided to sample Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and rock the MTV Video Music Awards in front of the loudest, proudest declaration of feminist identity the world has ever seen. If a couple of Jewish teen girls read Ms. Magazine and decide to raise funds for girls’ education in the developing world, or create political theater to protest the school-to-prison pipeline, or collect stories about how people in their community experience sexism and what advice they would offer to others, consider them your sisters in the struggle for equal rights for women and all genders. They certainly consider you theirs. If you ever need some inspiration, you are welcome to come hang out with Ma’yan’s RTIs while they strategize new ways to take down the patriarchy. For me, working with these young feminists is like drinking from the fountain of youth, and backing them up feels like the most powerful work I can do. Trust me, Letty, the girls are alright, and the future of feminism is going to be awesome.