The End of the Women's Movement
The era of the singular feminist agenda is over. But that doesn't mean gender-based activism is.
The Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, housed at the continually surprising and alive Brooklyn Museum, celebrated its second anniversary last weekend with a speak-out called "Unfinished Business." As the title suggests, the aim was to bring a diverse range of feminists together in one auditorium to talk about the future of our so-called movement. The lineup of official speakers was, indeed, admirably diverse -- both ethnically and generationally; it included activist and researcher C. Nicole Mason, labor organizer Ai-jen Poo, GritTV host Laura Flanders, novelist and rabble-rouser Esther Broner, and hip-hop artist Toni Blackman.
Most of the voices from the audience, however, sounded eerily similar. They spoke longingly about the exuberant past, characterized by abundant energy and "sisterhood." They lamented that no locatable movement exists anymore, that no one is organized, that no one is out in the streets. At one point, Broner even admitted, "I interpret everything through that time."
With the utmost respect for Broner, whom I found refreshing and radical, I think that this approach is at the center of contemporary feminism's biggest challenge. We are intergenerationally fractured, right down to the most foundational of questions: Is there a formal feminist movement anymore? Does there need to be?
Members of the second-wave generation developed their feminist identity during the heyday of direct action. They had ecstatic, very physical experiences of feminism. They went to meetings -- so, so many meetings. They pounded the pavement. They participated in direct-action spectacles like taking over the offices of The Ladies Home Journal. They yelled until their vocal chords were raw.
Now these women are older, many of them happily shifting into what Jane Fonda calls "the third act" -- a stage of life when they don't give a shit what anyone else thinks, and they want to see the world live up to its God damn potential, once and for all. They start dying their hair funky shades of red. They urge their husband to get a hobby as they head out for another expletive- and laughter-filled lunch with their friends -- other women who are funding feminist causes, editing feminist publications, and leading local feminist efforts. In some ways, it's a return to their earnest youth -- a time less fraught with the compromises that come with juggling families and careers. They're prioritizing changing the world again. And as such, they seem to experience an old hankering for an unapologetic women's movement that they can see, hear, and touch.
I don't blame them. All of their stories -- about marching in the streets, about taking over offices, about riding around the country in vans, falling in love – not only sounds like they had a whole lot of fun, but also managed to make some profound political changes. But I also recognize that it is a time that has passed. Not only is the women's movement -- as it was known in the 1960s -- over, but women my age don't even agree on what a "woman" really is.
Sometimes I feel as if my generation -- women in our 20s and 30s -- are feminism's Frankensteins. After all, Broner herself was responsible for building some of the first women's studies programs in the nation. Now a generation is graduating from them using words like "genderqueer" -- meaning that one doesn't identify exclusively as male or female. We generally aren't down for the subtle messaging by many older women who believe that females in positions of power are inherently less violent or more community-minded than their male counterparts, a view that Bitch magazine founder Lisa Jervis hilariously called "femmenism."
Many second-wave leaders have founded nonprofit organizations (Steinem alone is partly or fully responsible for Choice USA, the Women's Media Center, and The Ms. Foundation) that allow young women to become professional feminists -- those who make a living off of feminist activism by writing, teaching, and organizing. Thanks to their support -- financial and otherwise -- I wake up each morning and sit down at my laptop to "fight the patriarchy" (although I avoid the term like the plague). I mentor other young women who are interested in forging feminist careers. I teach women how to write op-eds. I go on conservative television shows and argue for the feminist point of view.
We march in the streets when we're called to (the March for Women's Lives in 2004, Take Back the Night each year on most college campuses) but more as a matter of solidarity and fun than out of any real conviction that protesting still creates change. Many of us, myself included, believe that change is created through strategic communication, alliance-building, and a million little grass-roots movements all over the country that fight for justice and may or may not call themselves feminist (I don't actually care much).
During the Sackler Center event, Broner shouted, "We need another Bella!" But young women are used to a more fractured, niche-driven world where there are no Bella Abzugs or Gloria Steinems -- just thousands of notable blogs with vivid analysis, hundreds of smart, energetic community organizers, a few notable young female politicians. People within feminist circles may recognize names like Jessica Valenti or Jennifer Baumgardner, but the general public doesn't. This is largely due to what Wired editor Chris Anderson calls "the long tail" -- the decreasing presence of a mainstream culture and the increasing influence of more diffuse communities organized around specific interests. In other words, we don't have a leader because it's hard to even pin down who "we" are. Leaders are useful for galvanizing movements, but they also rise to fame at a critical cost. Young feminists should count ourselves lucky that we don't have one face representing our generation -- which would mean one race, one socioeconomic class, one ideological bent. Nothing could be less representative, actually.
At one point during the event a fairly young woman stood up and expressed her dream of a "love craft" that would travel from coast to coast, creating a feminist utopia in international waters filled with art and healing. I admire her idealism. God knows I could use some sun after this long, cold winter. But I believe that ship has sailed.
In today's climate of shaky economics, smaller and smaller subcultures, and lightning-speed information, a feminism based on picket lines and in-person consciousness-raising groups is next to impossible. I wish that we could all come to terms with that. Instead of pining over days far gone or talking about how we might resurrect them, we could put our energy into supporting the good work on the ground going on right now -- the Young Women's Empowerment Project in Chicago, the Student Action with Farmworkers in Durham, Exhale after-abortion counseling in Oakland, Domestic Workers United in New York, and more. We could revise our expectations -- not a few giant fireworks but so many little sparks; not worldwide protests but effective public-awareness campaigns and advocacy and service provision; not a unified body but a courageous and creative culture.
Call me cynical, but I don't think there will ever be a global, or even national, uprising of women focused on one singular goal. There will be no singular feminist agenda. There will be no women's movement. And that's not a bad thing. Because there will be thousands upon thousands of women -- young and old alike -- waking up tomorrow with big ideas, lots of resources and communication tools, and plenty of conviction that they have the right and responsibility to make the world better. It's a little less romantic, I admit, but amazing nonetheless.
© 2009 The American Prospect