Are Younger Women Trying to Trash Feminism?

The under-forties say we’re still fighting the last war — one that’s already been won. We think they’re just slackers, riding our coattails and giving us no credit. Two sharp-tongued feminists discuss.

Moderated by Katherine Lanpher

Feminism Then and NowLinda Hirshman, 64, was a lawyer and is now an author. Her most recent book is Get to Work…and Get a Life Before It’s Too Late.Rebecca Traister, 33, covers gender politics and media for Salon.com.MORE: Do older women say, "Younger women don’t know what we did; they don’t understand our struggles"? Traister: Yes. I hear that all the time, and the tensions between the generations drive me crazy. In return, there’s a good deal of resentment from the younger women, who say, "You don’t take us seriously. The things we care about may be different from what you recognize, but that doesn’t make them invalid. Just because we didn’t fight the same battles doesn’t mean that we don’t care." One of the great ironies about the success of the feminist movement in the 1970s is that it won for young women the opportunity to live lives in which they would get to take for granted all the things that were hard-won by their mothers. And the result is a world in which abortion is legal, women are able to attend college without worrying that the deck is stacked against them, and there is equal opportunity in terms of getting jobs, even if women are not paid as much as men. This is victory. This is what victory looks like. Victory looks like young women who don’t understand the coat hanger symbol. A few years ago I was on the Metro in Washington, D.C., with a ton of people after a pro-choice march. These teenagers standing behind me said, "What are all those buttons with the coat hanger, with the slash?" They were totally mystified. I understand the impulse to say, "Come on, kids, learn your history." I get that. But this is the result that was desired; this is what was fought for.Hirshman: I’d be happy to turn my attention to other matters besides choice. There are human problems that women of my generation could address. But we’re still looking at a world in which one fragile vote on the Supreme Court is all that stands between us and a world of coat hangers.Traister: Right. That is the reality.Hirshman: And I cannot figure out why this very basic lesson is taking so long to sink in. When I see young women enjoying a movie like Juno, I go into orbit. To me, the idea that a 16-year-old should bear a child that she then has to give away is just atrocious. I feel the filmmakers are playing with fire.Traister: This is where there’s an understanding gap. The young women who embrace Juno are saying "Here’s a movie about a smart, witty 16-year-old girl who can talk about sex, can have sex, without being tossed out by her family."Hirshman: I think the liberated way to raise our daughters is to say to them, "There’s no shame in sexuality, but you don’t have to become pregnant in order to have a sexual life. You do not have to pay a political and economic price for your sexual liberation."Pantsuits, Politics, and the Generation GapMORE: What about the workplace? The career consultant Mary Crane says the line of demarcation between older and younger women is pantyhose. Traister: Well, I’ve never worn a pair of pantyhose in my entire life, not once. Hirshman: I must confess I have, as recently as last winter in New York. I wear them under my pants to keep warm.MORE: So, the great pantyhose divide. Does it mean that older women go to the office dressed more formally? Traister: Yes. I went to a book party wearing jeans and a tank top with a sweater over it. The next day I got a call from a magazine editor who said that someone who had seen me was developing a story based on why young women reveal so much cleavage, and who do these women think they are? I don’t think my clothes are that revealing. But I guess by many standards, they are.MORE: Is that perhaps an example of what 1970s feminism has given us? Hirshman: You mean the opportunity to wear low-cut tank tops to book parties? Traister: Hell, yes!Hirshman: I’m to the right on this subject. Women are better off behind a barrier of concealment. If men are completely dressed, women shouldn’t walk around with their boobs showing. The political power differential between a dressed human being and a naked one is substantial.Traister: I think that there isn’t any political imperative to dress one way or another. I believe you should feel free to expose a certain amount of flesh without being a sex object.

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