Generation Wars Rise Again (or maybe not)

By Jo Reger


Having spent a large part of my career studying U.S. feminism and the women’s movement, I find myself screaming a bit inside my head as I look at headline after headline declaring a feminist generation gap in the next presidential election. The refrain goes —“Why don’t young women support Hillary? Why don’t they know their history? Why turn to ‘the Bern’? Why? Why? Why?”

I have seen the rise of the generation “why?” several times in the past decade. Most recently, it was around the 2011 (and continuing) slutwalks that condemn rape along with slut shaming and sexual profiling. In this case the question was around appearance and sexuality — why are young (mostly white) women and men embracing the image of the slut as empowering? As a result of the constant rise of the generation “why” question, I spent a lot of time thinking about feminist generation gaps after spending time at a slutwalk  in 2012 and, earlier ,   my  study of community feminist networks. Drawing on that research, three relevant points about the upcoming presidential election come to mind: 1) Feminism is not monolithic. 2) Dividing feminists by age is problematic. 3) Coming of age as a feminist in different times makes different priorities. I realize that these points somewhat contradict each other. Let me explain.

Feminism is diverse. How feminists respond to issues and indeed, the ways in which they create their feminist identities, is enmeshed in their communities and the issues and situations around them. Feminists in progressive communities often push the agenda further and embrace the more radical issues. Feminists in hostile communities often need to carefully pick their battles to survive and make change. This means that differences in feminist opinions (or choice of candidates) are not just about age, but instead emerge from communities that often have very difference situations, opportunities and constraints. Feminists have NEVER been a monolithic entity with a single mind, no matter how many times we are stereotyped as such.  The history of feminism is one of moments of divisions, mergers, splits and unity. We are living in one of those dynamic moments now.

It is more than age. Sociologists argue that we become politicized by our surroundings and the events of our time. Sometime changes in our world happen in broad, catastrophic events that create a politicized generation. But often we are politicized in less dramatic but equally important ways. These two ways of becoming politicized are the difference between a political generation and what Nancy Whittier labels a micro cohort. In my work on slutwalks, I argue that many people who embraced the protests did so because they were politicized at a particular time in a particular place but not necessarily that they are of a particular age. The slutwalks were populated by a range of people of different ages and were critiqued by a range of people of different ages. In sum, place and space are often more important than age in making someone political.

However, experience and age can correlate to some degree. This is particularly true when groups of feminists share the same experiences because of changes in the social landscape. For example, consider the use of the wire coat hanger to symbolize the need for illegal abortion. As someone once said, “When young women don’t know what a wire hanger stands for, that is a victory for the women’s movement.” This is not to argue we ought to forget our history. But, rather, that progress is good and one of the victims of progress can be memory. (This example is on shaky ground as we know). This leads to my next point.

Different Priorities. For many, coming of “feminist” age in the 1960s and 1970s meant that the goal of a woman president almost unattainable Attempts in the past—Shirley Chisholm, Patsy Mink, Bella Abzug, Pat Schroeder—seemed more ideological than plausible. The very real possibility and the idea of Hillary Clinton is exciting to many and the culmination of a long fought fight. For young women and men of a different time and place, the idea of a woman president in a world where girls are told they can be anything they chose does not seem all that impossible. As a result, Hillary Clinton does not seem like the answer to the long asked question, “Will a woman ever be president?”  Place and time have assured them that this is a distinct possibility. Like the forgotten meaning of the coat hanger, this waiting for the “right” woman candidate versus the “possible” candidate is a victory for the movement. It just may not seem like that for those who don’t want to wait any longer.

So, when it comes to whether young feminists are supporting Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton, let’s acknowledge that age is only a small part of the story. The actual ideological dynamics are much more interesting, and significant, than a mother-daughter squabble or a youngster-elder catfight. These media portrayals diminish a complex picture of diverse feminist identities that embrace an array of social justice priorities into something trivial.

Instead, we should be admiring the gains of feminist activism – reflected both in the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, and the feminists who choose not to vote for her.

Jo Reger is the editor of Gender & Society and the author of Everywhere and Nowhere: Contemporary Feminism in the United States (Oxford, 2012). Her work on the slut walks appeared in Feminist Formations (2014) and The Journal of Contemporary Ethnography (2015).


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