Looking to heal the gender rift between feminists.

Women writing about politics, etc.
June 7 2008 7:44 AM

We Need To Talk

Looking for some way to repair the feminist gender rift.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

In response to Barack Obama's Philadelphia speech about race, Melinda Henneberger and I tried to imagine what a comparable speech from Hillary Clinton on gender might sound like. Because this all happened eons ago (in March) we erroneously believed that if Clinton were to deliver a speech about gender, it would address itself chiefly to the unspoken misperceptions and doubts simmering between men and women.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

How young we were! How naive! If there is any reconciling to be done at this point in the Democratic primary, it's between women and other women. Sadder still, the rift that's emerged is between groups of women who want precisely the same things: Equality in pay and opportunity, freedom from harassment and violence, the right to control one's body ...  a woman president. This is not the "mommy wars," my sisters. If yesterday's Washington Post chat between the XX Factor team and our readers is any guide, the growing split between female Clinton and Obama supporters makes the "mommy wars" look like a pillow fight.

Our readers are angry, and some of them are really angry.  My colleague Emily Bazelon characterizes this generational split between the young feminists and older ones as "heart-rending," and it's true that this acrimony is far more personal and painful than the spitballs we used to lob back and forth with the women who think its wrong for other women to have their own IRAs. Right now it seems there is hardly a Democratic-leaning woman left in America who isn't feeling either bitterly sold out by her daughter, or henpecked to a scabby pulp by mom and grandma. Early efforts at reconciliation have been mostly symbolic. Some of the country's leading feminists published a sort of working paper in The Nation last February. The inimitable Jessica Valenti   urged us all to use this rift to work toward a "better, more forward-looking feminism." Emily's List has just now released a statement that both celebrates Clinton and admonishes her supporters to "come together to take the White House in November" and "unleash the political power of women to help Democrats win at every level in 2008."

Most of us are hoping that today's outrage and recriminations will begin to fade in the months to come; that our great-aunts' threats to cast a ballot for John McCain—the man who voted against equal pay for women—will prove mere threats. But even if we can all manage to realign ourselves as likeminded feminists by November, it would be a mistake for us to skate past the Recent Ugliness without making an effort to address it. Having spent five months pounding on one another like men, it's perhaps worth now attempting to bridge the feminist divide like women. That would mean listening instead of shouting and recognizing the common interests that outweigh our differences.

The worst of the intergenerational bickering of the past months has resulted from a failure of empathy; a breakdown in our capacity to acknowledge that the experiences of others are as compelling as our own. In a sense, we have simply been doing battle over whose stories are more legitimate—the second-wavers or their Pottery Barn daughters— or whose perceptions of gender discrimination are more accurate. Forgive me for saying that this is an argument that is singularly unworthy of us as women. Aren't we supposed to be great and gifted listeners and connectors?

I recently got tipsy with a group of ferociously successful second-wave lawyers, each of whom offered up blood-curdling tales of being one of a small group of women in her law school class; forced to walk great distances—uphill in both directions—to find the single ladies' room on campus. They were never called upon in class (or they were always called upon) and denied clerkships and jobs and promotions explicitly because they were women. I can't describe how angry they were at the generation that followed for our failure to support Hillary Clinton's candidacy. They truly felt that they had passed our generation a torch and we peed on it.

Younger women have, for their part, grown tired of the accusation that the simple act of supporting Barack Obama reveals them to be shallow and spoiled and ungrateful. When second-wave feminist Robin Morgan accused a whole generation of females of being "eager to win male approval by showing they're not feminists" she pretty much said goodbye to all that respect and reverence we once felt for her feminist trailblazing. Since when do feminists accuse other feminists of being brainless bimbos? Isn't that what men are for?

Yes, my generation grew up in the plush comfort of academic equality and equal access to jobs. It's true that far fewer of us have bumped our foreheads on a rigid glass ceiling. But we're not blind to sexism and we don't tolerate it any more than our moms did. We've worked very hard to broaden our definition of feminism to include women of different classes and races and we are proud that the men we date and marry have met us halfway on the little things. We don't think our choices are frivolous. We think they are complicated.

It's not a coincidence that Hillary Clinton used the word "invisible" to describe her supporters this week. In an essay in Newsweek,Tina Brown used that same term to describe the women who are her staunchest allies: women over 50 in America who are "vigorous, independent, self-liberated boomer women—women who possess all the management skills that come from raising families while holding down demanding jobs" and who nevertheless "find themselves steadfastly dissed and ignored" by a shallow, narcissistic youth culture. I don't know if these women are really as furious at being ignored by advertisers, the media, and Hollywood as Brown suggests. But I am guessing that being ignored by their own daughters in recent months has proved to be too much. It's not just that some of us quit our jobs and stayed home to take care of the kids, at the expense of the partnerships and professorships and CEO gigs they'd have killed for.  We've also dismissed their feminist anger and outrage over Clinton's campaign as more old-fashioned than their bell bottoms and clove cigarettes. 

Still, in the spirit of reconciliation, I'd ask our mothers and grandmothers to take another look at the young feminists of 2008—supporters of Clinton and Obama alike. We've got money we earned—not by pole-dancing for the most part—and we've chosen to spend it on political candidates! Not shoes! (Or at least on political candidates and shoes.) We are smart and educated and politically engaged. We are passionate about repairing the world for your grandkids and goofily confident that those same granddaughters will be someday number among the joint chiefs of staff and the National League pennant winners. And wasn't that at the core of your dream for us?

You are not invisible. But we are not blind. And maybe now's not the best time to confess to this but these rose-colored glasses we've been wearing since January? We borrowed them from you. ...