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Steinem: older and younger feminists need more dialogue

By Nancy Hurrelbrinck

Photos by Stephanie Gross
Gloria Steinem

Older feminists and younger ones can learn a lot from each other, but they need to communicate better, agreed Gloria Steinem and two young feminists who addressed an overflow crowd in the Law School's 550-seat Caplin Auditorium Sept. 19.

The forum was one of several events planned for this fall to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the U.Va. Women's Center.

"We want this generation to start speaking for [itself]," said Jennifer Baumgardner, a 1992 U.Va. alumna who worked at Ms. magazine for five years and co-authored Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future, published this month by Farrar Straus & Giroux.

Young feminists also need to learn more about their predecessors, said Amy Richards, the book's other co-author, noting that many young women are more likely to know the media's image of early feminism than the real stories of the women who shaped it.

Amy Richards
Amy Richards
Jennifer Baumgardner
Jennifer Baumgardner

Steinem, who co-founded Ms. magazine in 1972 and is currently a consulting editor, has written several books on feminism. She said the dynamics between younger and older feminists often parallel those commonly found between mothers and daughters.

"Many older feminists were insufficiently rewarded for their activism and may be seeking retroactive gratitude from younger ones. Or they may, like mothers who did not have the opportunities their daughters now have and take for granted, be jealous of their freedom," she said.

She offered older feminists the following advice: "Don't think of young women as your daughters. They're more like peers from a different country. ... Young women won't become feminists out of guilt or gratitude. They need to find their own anger."

Steinem added that many women tend to be more conservative in their early years, but to become radicalized once they enter the workplace and encounter discrimination, or when they become mothers and find themselves working two jobs with little help.

She also recommended that older feminists retire the question, "Where are the young feminists?"

"It misses the point," she said. "We've produced the most uppity generation of young women in history. Enjoy them."

Baumgardner and Richards have some advice for "first-wave" feminists as well: listen to what the younger generation has to say. In their book, they note that young women are often asked to act as assistants to older ones.

"They ask us to introduce them at conferences, but not to contribute our own ideas, even about issues concerning us," such as abortion, she said.

A source of misunderstanding between younger and older feminists lies in how they express their feminism, whether through culture or politics, the speakers agreed.

"Our generation has all this great feminist culture, with magazines like Riot Girl and Sassy, but we're less interested in politics," Baumgardner said.

Richards and Baumgardner want to convince their generation that political and legal issues such as the Equal Rights Amendment and equal pay for equal work are important, they said, as well as enlighten their peers that "girly culture is very white, middle-class and consumer-based."

"One of the smart insights in [Manifesta] is that, in the '60s, politics was culture," Steinem said. "Now culture needs politics. Both [older and younger feminist contingencies] need remedial efforts. The younger women need to recognize that power relations influence culture. And feminists from the '60s have to realize that we emphasized politics [in part] because it was taken seriously by men."

Steinem noted that older feminists, who turned to books and meetings to hone their political beliefs, may not understand the importance of such cultural elements as songs with feminist lyrics that the younger generation has grown up on and holds dear.

During the question-and-answer period, an audience member asked what's being done to include more women of color in the feminist movement.

Steinem responded that they've always been there, noting that, in the '70s, the first national poll of women's issues showed that African-American women were two times as likely to be feminists as white women.

Richards warned against becoming misdirected by divisions in the movement. "We don't all have to agree on everything. Feminists have tended to strive for perfection. We don't want to have a meeting unless [women from every race] are represented there."

Steinem added, "This generation brings a willingness to deal with conflict, whereas earlier feminists feared the media would report that women can't get along. We overdid our unanimity."

In polls, at least one-third of all women claim to be feminists. When asked if they support the political, economic and social equality of women and men -- the dictionary's and Steinem's definition of feminism -- the figure rises to 70 percent.


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