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The movement that has no name

By Deborah Siegel

Deborah Siegel is the author of Sisterhood, Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild (Palgrave Macmillan, June 2007). The following is an excerpt from the introduction.

Women fighting for rights, power, and parity generally share some rudimentary goals, hopes, and dreams. But from its inception, the movement known as feminism has been one of the most internally fragmented and outwardly controversial -- perhaps because so many have so much to gain. Today many of the conflicts that characterize public debates about the meaning and relevance of feminism are generational, with yesterday's flaming radicals and today's cool girl bloggers rarely recognizing each other as fellow travelers in the fight for social equality and personal satisfaction. "Where are the younger feminists?" cry founders of women's organizations, now approaching retirement, as they e-mail each other about their often nonexistent succession plans. "Why don't older women get us?" ask younger women on social networking Web sites like MySpace -- women who may know about the life of Bettie Page than that of Betty Friedan.

With little awareness of a shared history, younger women seeking to rally their peers and continue the forward march toward advancement are stuck reinventing the wheel. At the same time, framers of the 1960s and 1970s women's movement (commonly known as the second wave) are proving increasingly blind to interpretations of empowerment that they didn't themselves initiate. Blocked by their own inability to see members of the next generation as sisters in a struggle that they themselves inherited from members of an earlier wave, second-wave movement mothers worry that they have failed younger women. Or that younger women, ungrateful daughters, have in turn failed them. Have they? Have we?

In spite of our differences, older and younger women concerned with women's continued progress have much more in common than we think. But a mounting generation gap -- fueled by divergent understandings of power and empowerment -- currently obscures the larger war. How can younger women relate to their movement mothers and narrow the chasm between their mothers' style of empowerment and their own?Instead of brushing aside generational differences in the name of an abstract concept known once fondly as sisterhood, women young and old must appreciate where the alienation is coming from and seek first, as the old adage implores us, to understand.

The age gap is not, of course, the only chasm preventing women concerned with equity and continued advancement from uniting in common cause. Today as in the past, lack of sensitivity to race and class can preclude any shot at solidarity. But against this already divisive landscape, age is fast becoming an unnecessary divider.

Why don't younger women call themselves feminists? Perhaps, in part, it is a matter of spin. Feminism the movement and feminist the identity have never been an easy sell. The question of how to "fix" feminism's meaning and sell revolution to a critical mass of American women has plagued popularizers and would-be popularizers of the movement for forty years. The current sales quandary -- that of "selling" the movement to the young -- is but the latest in a long line of attempts to mainstream a hotly contested cause. Across the generations and at the heart of the battle to articulate feminism as a movement with mass appeal has been that singular tagline: The Personal Is Political. These words more than any others link the far-flung battles of women fighting for equality -- including the ones we are in the midst of today.

In 2006, veteran feminists accuse younger women of turning their backs on feminism's history and turning back the clock. For many women in their twenties and thirties, "politics" refers to elections or politicians -- not necessarily the underlying currents that shape their personal lives. For them, the conditions shaping individual trajectories and private lives no longer seem political, at least not in the way they seemed to be for the Boomers who preceded them.

But the disconnect between personal life and social context is not solely the fault of younger women. Individualism seems to have trumped collective action -- not just among women, but throughout American culture more generally during the past thirty years. Recent decades have seen the decline of liberalism and a decline in social commitment to collective, progressive change more broadly, though the emergence of Internet activism around recent elections offers a propitious sign for the future of citizen movements. Still, from a historical perspective, civic participation in general has been on the wane. Liberals have lost political power as conservatives have gained it, and the social movements that historically have dominated progressive politics -- including those for women, labor, and civil rights -- have less overall impact on politics today. Collective social movements decrease in political relevance when high finance trumps grassroots organizing, and this is exactly what we have seen happening of late. Political parties once dependent on the number of volunteers on the ground are now media-driven and depend less on foot soldiers than on massive television buys. For women, the fallout from these shifts is profound.

Although women's organizations and activism certainly still exist, younger women today do not always experience the direct support of a movement behind them. And without a movement behind them, the reasons women still can't have it all --fulfilling career, committed relationships, kids -- seem, as in the days before Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique, merely "personal." Many of women's social problems once again have no public names. The word "revolution" itself has lost its political edge. Google the words "women" and "revolution" and you are likely to dredge up stories about the "opt-out revolution" -- a headline-making term for what happens when well-heeled, well-educated daughters of feminists drop out of their careers. This so-called trend, cavalierly dubbed so by prominent newspapers, is neither revolutionary nor counterrevolution, but rather the adjustment of a privileged few to a workplace that doesn't make room for mothers. Even though it is often framed as such, a well-off woman's choice to stay home is hardly the pinnacle of broad-scale empowerment. Elite women's sense that their only option is to opt out is a copout -- but it is hardly the fault of the individual women who cannot find a way to make it all work. Rather, it signals our common failure to see the shared themes in women's personal struggles, across race and class and geography, as connected to larger structural issues or addressable by collective formulas for change. Instead of questioning what's wrong with "the system," a younger woman struggling today for "balance" (or, on the other end of the economic spectrum, to "get by") more typically asks herself: What's wrong with me?The result? A series of parallel individual meltdowns where instead a real revolution should be.

It is ironic, perhaps, that members of a generation raised on the Barbie slogan, "You Can Do Anything" and philosophies that emanated from hit albums like Free to Be You and Me today demonstrate scant awareness of women's collective power. Younger women, who are more likely to be single, are portrayed on television, in Hollywood, and in the news as being more concerned with dating than changing the world. Polls proclaim that only 22 percent of unmarried women under thirty regularly vote. Popular culture reinforces, by amplifying, this assumed image of apathy. On shows like Laguna Beach, or in starlets-turned-role models like Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson, younger women are portrayed as more obsessed with lip gloss, Manolo Blahniks, and "hotness" than liberation, critical mass, and social change. What has happened to us, the daughters of women's liberation? This is hardly the world the architects of a movement for women's social, political, and economic equality envisioned. It's no wonder the aging visionaries seem upset.

But these are stereotypes, And it's not as if women of a younger generation are sitting on their duffs. They are coming of age in a world that has changed -- though, as many of them recognize, not enough. Yes, women of Generations X and Y live in a different environment, but it is no less complex than the one Boomer women faced. The difference, and the problem, is that they often lack an awareness that many of their conflicts are shared. In a recent book on how the stakes have changed for a new generation, Midlife Crisis at Thirty, Gen X-ers Lia Macko and Kerry Rubin offer their personal anxiety attacks as evidence of a broader generational angst. That angst, they argue, is a response to the lingering social and economic contradictions that continue to affect women of all ages -- or, as they put it, the gap between women's progress and old-school corporate structures and rigid social conventions. It's the gap between What Has Changed and What Has Stayed the Same. In this breach, confusion is born: We've come a long way…maybe.

MMO : june 2007

Reprinted with the publisher's permission. Sisterhood, Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild. Palgrave Macmillan, New York: June 2007.

Also on MMO:

How the personal became political
Deborah Siegel's Sisterhood, Interrupted
Reviewed by Judith Stadtman Tucker

Mommies are people:
Revisiting Free To Be...You and Me

By Judith Stadtman Tucker

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