Written by this week's podcast guest, Carla Nordstrom
When I was a teenager my family lived near Betty Friedan when she was writing The Feminine Mystique. Friedan was a friend of my father’s, a quick-witted economist who taught nearby. My mother was working full time, going to school full time, and managed our family of six - the type of woman Friedan often wrote about. Periodically Friedan would drop in to visit my father, but what I remember is her barging in through the front door and making a beeline for Dad. She had no interest in my mother, my sisters, or me. Years later, I mentioned my recollection to a friend of my parents and she laughed and said that Friedan would push her out of the way and pull her husband into another room for a private chat.
I came of age in the sixties and seventies, participated in consciousness raising groups, and demonstrated for ERA and reproductive rights. My experience was that the leaders of the early feminist movement could be a bit overbearing. They defined feminism and dictated what female identity was, insisting that feminism superseded other issues. Their most damaging and impactful declaration required us to speak of choice instead of using the word abortion. "Choice" focused on a woman’s intent instead of reasons abortions are necessary, and this had a negative impact on the conversation later on.
I now find that the recent verbal attacks on younger women from icons of feminism have a tinge of déjà vu. Gloria Steinem said in a recent interview with Bill Maher that she thought young women are attracted to Bernie Sanders’ candidacy because that is where the boys are. Although she later apologized, it was clear that she doesn’t have a daughter who is a millennial, because if she did she would know that young women don’t do things because boys do them. If the guys are lucky, young women acknowledge them, but they make up their own minds when it comes to who to vote for. Doing things because that is where the boys are was a habit we had to break ourselves of in the early days of the women’s movement.
It isn’t that young women don’t understand that women are still under siege as Madeline Albrecht and Barbara Boxer have suggested. My own daughter came to me at one point when the company she worked for cheated her out of a promotion. “Why didn’t you warn me?” she asked. I had warned her but the affronts that younger women face in the workplace are subtle and insidious. A new wrinkle in job discrimination is women in power positions join with men in firmly attaching a glass ceiling atop female heads. It is hard to tell whether the slights are sexist, ageist, racist, but any way you slice it the consequences are challenging.
Young women today define feminism more broadly than the icons of the feminist revolution did. They speak of intersectional feminism and consider how different women are discriminated against in different ways because of the different facets of their identity. Young feminists are open to the plight of all women no matter their race, gender orientation, sexual preference, education, economic status, or physical attributes. They see war and state violence as feminist causes as well. It is a more complex understanding of the issues than I recall from the early seventies, when we collected in consciousness raising groups to figure out why we felt so crappy.
It is not uncommon for an older generation to look down on a younger generation and dismiss it with a sigh. I recall grown ups in the late sixties throwing up their arms and asking why we had to question everything, why we were so angry about the Vietnam War, and why we couldn’t just be good girls and settle down. What is disappointing is the very women who led us through the battles and busted the glass ceilings atop our heads are so critical of today’s young.
Perhaps it is Bill Clinton’s old adage, “it’s the economy stupid” that is driving young women to the polls to vote for an old man over an old woman. They don’t like the impact of the rich on elections. They are angry that they are paid less than their male counterparts. Education is too expensive and has saddled them with huge debts. They are troubled by the effect the school to prison pipeline has had on men of their generation. And in case you haven’t noticed, Wall Street and the big banks brought down the economy when these women were coming of age.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised that Gloria Steinem assumed that millennial women flock to the Sanders campaign to meet men. After all, Betty Friedan, the mother of the modern women’s movement, used to come to my house, which was full of women to be with the only boy. Many of us worked hard in big and small ways to make things better for the next generation of women, but it's okay that they are choosing their own direction to move in and it is time for my generation to either step back with pride or step in to help.