Young Women's Work: On Generational Tension & The Third Wave


“I was pretty young when my Barbies started having abortions,” said writer Jennifer Baumgardner last night. The event was called “Young Women, Feminism And The Future.” I wished for a little bit more of the future stuff.

Baumgardner was explaining something she and her Manifesta co-author Amy Richards had talked about a lot, in the ten years since the book was published and before: they had grown up with “feminism in the water” and had come up with their own version of the women’s movement, which was branded as the Third Wave.

“One thing that hasn’t changed since Manifesta is intergenerational tension,” said Amy. And there’s plenty of evidence of that — witness the debate this week about women’s involvement in reproductive rights issues. The twist is that listening to them last night, I felt something akin to the mild alienation they must have felt about an earlier generation of women’s rights activists, even as their version of feminism had inspired me as a teenager and young adult. That was because it seemed more diverse, more aware, more welcoming, and more attuned to the culture.

But because Veronica Chambers had to cancel (she was on a trip delayed by the Icelandic volcano), it was an all-white panel. And yes, the amount of time they spent talking about their mothers was touching. But the friend I came with and I both had mothers that came of age in other countries (Cuba, Israel) who were strong-willed and independent but for whom official Feminism was never an explicit part of their lives. It was a lovely thing that these women had been raised by mothers for whom it was, but as a central prong of “young women’s feminism,” it seemed a pretty niche and, given the makeup of feminist-identified women back then, a rather white and educated, middle-class concern.

Rather than focus about what had changed in the last ten years and what might be happening now and in the future, there was a nostalgic tone to the panel. Bust editor Debbie Stoller did say that some of the problems that 1970s feminists described had been solved in ways that they themselves didn’t expect. Betty Friedan’s “Problem That Has No Name,” Debbie said, wasn’t about women working in the home — it was about traditional women’s work being devalued. She said personal blogs about motherhood and domesticity had helped changed that into something that was celebrated, if on a micro level.

And Jennifer said something that resonated about how her generation of feminists was less comfortable with a wide disconnect between their personal lives and their ideology, such that they were willing to have a more flexible ideology that reflected the realities of their lives.

“We solved some problems but left some problems in our wake,” said Debbie.

During the Q&A, I said I’d been an intern at Ms. the summer before their book had appeared, ten years ago. The biggest thing that had changed since then was in fact the explosion of Internet media and communication, which had made accessing feminist-oriented material and discussions available to anyone with Internet access. What did they make of that? (Not incidentally, how did I end up at Ms. at sixteen? The Internet. I cold-emailed them and every magazine’s email address I could find.)

They were not particularly enthusiastic about it, all this Internet and social media stuff. Jennifer said she worried it was a weak substitute for real-life activism. Amy pointed out that it was often yet another form of unpaid work for women, and that many foundations and organizations were launching blogs because they thought they were supposed to, without really knowing what they were for. Debbie didn’t really want to talk about her magazine vis a vis the Internet, but she did offer that Facebook was a girly form — “Like passing notes in class,” she ad-libbed.

For women who had branded a movement that was partially typified by media — riot grrl music, Bust magazine — it was an odd blind spot. It reminded me of covering the magazine industry at a time of profound denial about how the Internet was upending the business and readership model.

Maybe because Debbie edits a magazine that has to constantly be in search of the new, she seemed to understand it best. “Our touchstones are irrelevant,” she said at one point. “I never wanted to be one of those people that says, ‘Oh, that’s not feminist enough.’ Or, ‘Your music is crappy, ours was better.’ But now I am.” She allowed that the current generation of young women — she put it at 22 and under — would come up with their own touchstones eventually, and it would probably build on but be entirely different from what came before.

I would argue that it already has. And it’s on this Internet thing. It’s ironic that women who made their names on their youthful perspectives, arguing that their unique experiences had been left out of another generation’s narrative, should be unable to see it. But with all respect to them and the things they made possible, I guess it’s only fair.

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