Monday, March 05, 2007

A Generational Divide?

There's been a lot of good responses to Jessica's feminist sorority post. Upon reading it, my first impulse, frankly, was to laugh my ass off. Not because Jessica's post was funny, but because it reminded me so much of my own feminist writings and arguments from just 5-10 years ago (well, except for the "sex-positive" angle, that is). In fact, I was so committed to this fight at the time that I even started to do write my Master's thesis on this very topic.

I don't know if it was the research I did on the topic, or if it was just getting older, or just realizing that there were so many more important things to worry about, but I lost interest in the argument. But that doesn't mean I don't still have opinions on the topic (even if they are a bit different than they were 10 years ago).

One of the more interesting aspects of this on-going argument is the constantly changing aspect of it. In 2002, about the time I lost interest in the whole topic (as something to fight for or about), I was 31. Younger than Rebecca Walker (arguably one of the leading founders of the Third Wave Feminist movement, and, at the very least, the founder of the Third Wave Foundation). During the peak of this time for me, I was clearly in the "young feminist" category. And yet, now, Ariel Levy, who is 3 1/2 years younger than me, is called out as one of the "older generation." (No, Jessica doesn't specifically refer to Levy as "old," but the inference is clear, after all, she is using Levy as an example of those opposed to the "young feminists" like herself.)

In that since-abandoned thesis, I wrote:

Much of what has led to this hostility seems to be a mixture of truth and fallacy on both sides, the fallacies often generated by a lack of knowledge about the Wave the feminist is not a part of. Second Wave feminists often see Third Wave feminists ignoring their feminist history, eschewing theory and even going against that which many Second Wave feminists had fought for. Third Wave feminists often see Second Wave feminists as being too enmeshed in academic feminism, steeped in identity politics and unaccepting of a broader focus of feminist politics. While all of these assertions hold a certain level of truth, they are too broad to generalize to all feminists within their respective Waves.
While many of my opinions on this subject have changed over the years, the above has not. I know younger feminists haven't completely ignored their own feminist history. Whether through Women's Studies courses, discussions with their mothers and grandmothers (both literal and metaphorical), and their own readings, young feminists have, by and large, made a point to know their history. On the other hand, it has to be more than a little aggravating for older feminists to read younger feminists opining on the "new" internecine feminist battles as though they aren't the same damn battles that have been going on for the last 30 years. The current battles between the "sex positive" feminists and the "anti-porn" feminists have got nothing on the Sex Wars of the 70s and 80s. And sure, there was a lot of exclusion of women of color in the early days of the Second Wave -- but to ignore the incredibly important contributions of women of color in those early days is to also engage in the same exclusion (not to mention the many critiques of racist exclusion that takes place today, even among young feminists).

What it comes down to, in my opinion, has far less to do with a generational divide than with simple ideology. Fact is, when it comes to the never ending Sex Wars, Jessica will have far more in common with Patrick Califia than with Samantha Berg, and that clearly has nothing to do with age.


Jessica said...

Just a note, I never called Ariel Levy an older feminist or grouped her in with a particular school of feminist thought--I just pointed out that her book has been embraced my mainstram (and yes, older) feminists.

Frowner said...

I tend to see these debates as influenced, honestly, by our culture's dislike of aging--and I say this as someone who is just beginning to be "old" in activist terms. I've noticed (now that I'm over thirty!) that activists in their early twenties often identify me with their parents or with other authority figures, either ceding too much power to me, expecting me to take care of the boring "adult" practical details, or rebelling "against" me. Sometimes they patiently explain very simple points to me, because they assume that I have just become political and can't possibly know anything.

(Actually, my favorite instance of this was when a younger woman asked if she could borrow something I'd brought with to a demonstration, used it, and then made fun of me to another activist for being so "mom-like" as to bring scissors, a pen, a notebook and aspirin to a protest.)

More, I remember being exactly the same way when I was younger--feeling like the "adults" in the group would make sure that rooms got reserved, things got printed, the whole agenda got discussed, etc, yet also thinking that because they were older they must be boring and staid. I also remember assuming that I was more radical than they were as a matter of course, because how could someone who had obviously compromised with the system have really committed politics.

I think, in short, that age gets projected onto an ideology that is being critiqued because our culture doesn't like age much.

bean said...

Jessica -- fair enough. However, I think the fact that a younger feminist wrote such a book, and that so many feminists did embrace the book (and not just older and mainstream feminists) simply disproves the generational divide issue (at least on this issue) and goes to show that it is, in fact, simply and ideological one.

frowner -- YES!! I agree completely. I would add, however, that I do believe that the same argument can also be reversed. I do think, sometimes, that ideological disagreements can sometimes be dismissed because the person espousing said ideology is "too young," "too naive," what have you.

I think women often get disregarded in this country, and when it comes to age, they may be disregarded because they are "too old" or "too young."

Frowner said...

Hi, bean.

Yes, I think younger people do get dismissed just because they're young--in fact, I sometimes find myself wanting to dismiss something because the person who suggested it is, you know, seventeen or something.

The thing is, different types of people have different strengths, and it would sure help if activists were more open to "productive tension". An activist movement that's all made of one type of person is usually pretty awful.