The Generation Trap

Most young progressives have heard it at one point or another: the complaint that our generation is less active and engaged than the baby boomers were. As Phyllis Chesler (author of The Death of Feminism) told USA Today in 2006, ''I think that to be a feminist in our time, it was very easy.'' She continued, ''By the 1980s -- and certainly into the '90s -- it became very not fashionable to be a feminist because it was equated with being a man-hater, a loser, an angry person. They'll say, 'I'm not one of those feminists, but I’m for equal rights.'''

Quotations like these are often accompanied by black-and-white photos of women holding banners in the streets. It's true that we don't often see images of student-led Iraq War protests and boycotts of companies that violate human rights in today's newspapers. But actions like these are taking place, and a whole new activist world is flourishing online.

That's why I can't seem to work up the same despair that some older liberals clearly feel. Feminism has always been driven by a small, core group of activists. Liberals rightly criticize conservatives who idealize the 1950s as an era when everything was perfect, with stay-at-home wives, picket fences, and dads smoking cigars. But those on the left commit the same error when they reminisce about activism in previous decades, particularly the 1960s, and declare it more vibrant and more effective than youth activism today.

Maybe I'm a pessimist, but I don’t believe that the number of people who self-identify as feminists -- or anti-war or labor-rights activists -- will ever be that huge. And I'm not sure it's even a primary goal of feminism to simply get more people to call themselves feminists. The goal is really for feminist ideas to become mainstream and for feminist policies to be enacted. The fact that many young women are pro-choice, desire equality in personal relationships and in the workplace, and are politically engaged yet don't use the word ''feminist'' to describe themselves does not signal a crisis to me. It represents progress and opportunity.

The task for young activists now is to convince our peers that there's still a long road ahead, whereas in previous generations activists were convincing one another to start walking. It can be tricky to articulate both how far we've come and how far we have to go. In a 2005 speech, Barack Obama addressed this conundrum, saying of feminism, ''One of the most remarkable achievements of this very American movement has been to forge a consensus around this ideal of equal opportunity.'' He acknowledged that this progress can be exploited by those who want to argue we've already come far enough but that the consensus around equality, in and of itself, represents a success.

Today's social-justice activists start with very different conditions than those that existed in the 1960s. Yes, the student protests against the Vietnam War shook the country to its core. But it's not hard to connect the dots between the absence of a draft for the Iraq War and the lack of ongoing protest today. During second-wave feminism's formative years, abortion was inaccessible to much broader swathes of the country. Today abortion is a legal right, if a precarious one. Young women on modern college campuses are unlikely to know someone who has had a back-alley abortion, and let's face it: The activists who garner the most media coverage are middle- and upper-class students. It's both a good and a bad thing that it's harder to motivate these young people today. Good because fewer people are affected by these injustices; bad because those who are affected are predominantly the least privileged.

Some of these themes, especially where feminism is concerned, came to the fore during the Democratic primary. In one Washington Post article, a Wellesley student recalled telling her Hillary Clinton–supporting mother she was backing Obama: ''She started telling me about how our generation takes for granted a lot of advances that women have made.''

Last year at an event for pro-choice youth, I saw one Hillary supporter, Gloria Steinem, say she was pleased to hear that some young women take their rights for granted. That's what we were working for, she said, so you could start from a place far ahead of where we did, and advance the cause of feminism even further. Ironically, this rationale is part of why so many young women and men are drawn to Obama. He called on voters to start from what we've achieved and look forward. In a Democratic Party long defined by the successes and upheavals of the 1960s, it was a radical statement.

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