In the October edition of Harper's magazine in an essay called "American Electra: feminism's ritual matricide", Susan Faludi attempts to address the ongoing antagonisms within the feminist movement. Using examples from recent events she's participated in as well as including her attendance at the National Organization for Women (a.k.a. NOW) in 2009, she shows the rift at it's most raw. The power struggle between young and old (2nd & 3rd wave feminists) brings the organization to the brink of disruption and it remains unclear if the younger generation, who lost the battle at the 2009 convention, will remain with the organization. At the root of the problem, according to Faludi, is the loss of respect that women held in the home prior to the 20th century. Looking back over the history of the women's role in the home, she claims that as advertising and mass media begin an assault on motherhood at the beginning of the 1900s, the mother's role as authority over her children was disrupted, and the place she held as guide and role model, particularly with her daughters, was broken.
Citing Life Magazine covers from the 1920s, one from October 28 (above & right) juxtaposed by the "new woman" that was displayed six years later on New Years Eve (left), she shows the shifting images women were seeing around them. In addition to the flap over flappers, 1921 introduced American women to the Miss America pageant. Here she says, "the prevailing pageantry of the 1920s wasn't simply an infantilization of the girl. It was, more ominously, an eviction of the mother." She goes on to detail how this eviction resulted in an ongoing dispute between mother and daughter that continues to march on through time bringing us back to the NOW conference where the younger generation is in an uproar and part of that uproar is essentially, or ostensibly, all about sex. But the older generation is not about to give in to a generation that is ungrateful and all about "girl power" and the younger generation is not about to stand down when they are used to having things go their way (we are nothing if not predisposed to letting youth lead the way) so the fight seems predestined to continue on toward future conflict. "So what is the answer to this quandary?" One is left wondering. Faludi's answer is a resounding Education. Women's history and studies, she claims are the answer to the problem while admitting that fewer and fewer programs are being run in higher institutions as the essay concludes with a resounding jingle.
It was at this point that my opinion diverged like the path in the proverbial wood from that of Ms. Faludi. While I will never disagree with the need to remind our children, 3rd, 4th, or indeed 5th wave, and for that matter male or female, of history and the struggles that have come before. It is an American flaw that is as wide as the Grand Canyon itself that fails to grasp the importance of history, to treasure it, to own it and indeed LEARN from it. No indeed, I would never disagree for the call for higher education of the youth of America especially where it comes to relearning the truth about our history. However I would like to add that this younger generation of women do indeed have a point in claiming that sexuality is part of the problem. The older generation of feminists have fallen prey to the puritanistic roots of our past and too often made the younger generation feel ashamed of their sexuality rather than powerful and beautiful and sexual. In search of this beauty and sensuality, younger women have exchanged a tawdry bawdiness perhaps as a result of youth and a lack of guidance from mothers who might have been better prepared in other times. In other cultures women worshipped the Moon goddess and weren't afraid of their sexuality or sensuality. But in American in the 1800s mothers were a reflection of a deeply embedded puritanism that arrived on our shores at its inception and was only reinforced with witch burnings. It is no surprise that as the doors opened to the wilder sexuality of the 1900s, that this younger generation was anxious to leave their corseted pasts behind them. No, I would say, it was not as a result of the mass media as much as a opening of long locked doors that could simply not remain locked any longer.
But my disagreement doesn't end here. Christopher HItchens, in his memoir, Hitch 22 recalls to readers his disgust at finding the feminist movement and the Civil rights movement (or any movement for that matter) breaking into splinter groups -finding separate identities that could only be spoken for by members of the group itself. He doesn't address the result of this fracturing but it was a poignant reminder that at one time the woman's movement was a powerful force in the abolitionist movement and at one time black and white marched together to bring civil rights to this country. (Small aside: highly recommended reading)
A few weeks after reading the Hitchen's quote, I was moved by a dramatic presentation now on video inspired by Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States and Voices of a People's History of the United States. As I watched the struggles of the different groups spring to life through the different readings, I was struck by how our history in the United States has been one long struggle to obtain the rights of one group or another. But what was impressed upon me was that it was not Black rights nor Women's history but The People's History. The unions changed things. The women who fought for our right to vote changed things. African Americans who stood locked arms when water was fired at them changed things. And it was people- men, women, children, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, standing together who changed things.
The NOW organization may fall apart and Feminism itself may become extinct because the older generation has been a leading generation of voices to say that only women can speak for women. Is it any wonder that their younger counterparts refuse to listen to them? Many African-American groups see a similar division in their groups and hear similar complaints. Will they stand? It seems most likely that sub groups that focus on individual needs or complaints will form leaving the whole weaker than it was. It appears, at this point in history, that it will take some time for the people to remember that we are a People and not simply a group of specialized interests. We are all in this together and if we will not link arms to stand together-- then as a wise sheriff once said, "We are all interdependent. One falls, many fall."