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A feminist house divided?

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Today's question: What are the divisions in contemporary feminist movements? What can we expect in the future? Click here to read previous installments from this week's Dust-Up.

For feminist organizations, it's change or diePoint: Katha Pollitt
The division everyone likes to talk about is the generational one: second wavers versus third wavers, also known as mothers versus daughters, Puritans versus hotties or, most recently, Hillaryites versus Obamaniacs. All you have to do is write it down to see how silly it is. The "wave" construction itself is a big oversimplification, even chronologically: It assumes a feminist is either older than 60 or younger than 35. Most of the ideological differences that supposedly distinguish the two camps are present in both of them: Not all older feminists are anti-pornography; not all young feminists think porn is cool; and not all older feminists vote for "the woman," while plenty of younger feminists do. Both "waves" contain many different kinds of feminists: Democratic, Republican, socialist, libertarian, atheist, religious, gay, straight, married, single, working mothers, stay-at-home mothers and women who have no children.

In my own experience, older feminists are more likely to take a strong my-way-or-the-highway stand about what feminism is, as in, can a feminist be anti-choice? No! Most of the feminists I've encountered who are very, very reluctant to judge another woman are younger. But these are just generalizations and personal impressions.

One generational trend that's real, though, is the difficulty some feminist organizations have in attracting young women and bringing them into the leadership. The National Organization for Women in particular seems to be having trouble updating itself. But I've heard complaints about other groups from young volunteers who, for all their creativity, energy and dedication, don't feel heard. It's natural for organizations to resist change, and it's natural for leaders to resist being pushed off the stage. If an organization's newsletters go into the same mailboxes as AARP The Magazine, though, its influence is bound to dwindle, and that is indeed what we are seeing with the big Beltway groups. At a certain point, it's change or die. In the next decade, we'll find out which it's going to be.

I admire so much the groups and institutions young feminists have started: Medical Students for Choice, Bitch Magazine, local funds that help low-income women pay for their abortions (a shout out to the New York Abortion Access Fund, founded by Barnard College students, and the Equal Access Fund of Tennessee, which helps so many on a shoestring), and a whole raft of service groups that help young women, such as New York's Girls Write Now, which connects low-income high school girls with women writers as mentors.

And let's not forget the feminist blogosphere! It's brought into the light a whole raft of young feminist writers -- such as you, Amanda -- who are now publishing books, speaking on campuses, writing for newspapers and magazines and even appearing on television, little by little opening up the still mostly male world of political commentary. The blogosphere is our community bulletin board, our ongoing talk show, and it functions too as a kind of consciousness-raising group in cyberspace, a place for women to meet, connect and discover they're not the only feminist on Earth, although they may be the only one on their block.

Still, feminists need big multi-issue political-muscle organizations as well as smaller, single-issue ones. What do you think, Amanda? Should young feminists make a concerted effort to take over the Beltway groups? Should they form their own?

Katha Pollitt is a columnist for the Nation magazine. Her volume of personal essays, "Learning to Drive and Other Life Stories," was published last fall by Random House.


How larger groups can support young feministsCounterpoint: Amanda Marcotte
I agree that there's something fishy about the media narrative that puts feminists at odds because of age differences. The stereotype suggests that you and I, Katha, should be at each others' throats. In fact, I consider you a huge influence on my thinking and don't really feel much need to "strike out on my own," if I have to take intellectually dishonest paths to get there. Rebecca Walker recently disappointed me (again) by writing an article in the reactionary Daily Mail lambasting her mother, Alice Walker, glorifying the joys of motherhood as the proper choice for all women and echoing the idea that women should put our careers aside and concentrate on baby-making at an early age before it's "too late." That's not third-wave feminism; that's anti-feminism. It's what the media hoped third-wave feminism would be -- young women realizing that feminism makes us bad wives and mothers and therefore renouncing it.

What happened instead is that young women embraced feminism in large numbers, becoming high school athletes, college graduates, professionals and scientists as well as marrying and having children later in life. And far from these facts hurting our ability to be good wives, it turns out that embracing feminism has lowered the divorce rate and improved the quality of life inside marriages for men and women. The real conflict I hear about the most is over the word "feminism" itself. Nearly every time I give a speech, some college professor will ask me why the women in her classes won't label themselves as "feminists"; I can't help but think that it's mostly because young women have been told that feminists don't get dates or party invitations. Blogs can reach such young who make private, late-night Google searches. As the blogger Twisty said on the subject of the blog Feministing: "And it's a feminist gateway drug. ... [Young women] want to be like the hip, self-actualized Feministingers."

I went to the national NOW convention a few years ago as part of its day dedicated to young feminists, and I can see why the organization is losing the interest of young women. First of all, I was nearly 30 at the time, which made me a "young feminist" only by stretching the definition to a breaking point. Second of all, the day dedicated to young feminism was sheer tokenism in the most obvious way, using graphics and language that was tired when I was in middle school. NOW mostly wanted money, which is understandable, but it's not something many college or high school-age women have to give. But they do have their time and energy, and organizations such as NOW should keep that in mind. People who have time and energy to give also want some level of input and control.

Because the political landscape is always changing, single-issue organizations do need to become more flexible. What I would like to see is these single-issue organizations getting more support from, but not ceding control to, larger institutions, in part because I work for a reproductive health organization called RH Reality Check that has such a relationship with the United Nations Foundation, and it works beautifully. You have both that direct responsiveness that prevents you from putting "let's kick it with the feminist homies" in your marketing materials, but you're also not reinventing the wheel when it comes to funding and structural stability.

So to answer your question, Katha, the ideal situation would be not to take over the Beltway groups or form my own, but for the Beltway groups to sponsor younger feminists in a way in which everyone gets to control their own nests.

Amanda Marcotte is the executive editor and writer for the blog Pandagon.net. Her first book, "It's a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environment," is published by Seal Press.

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