A Debate on the Future of Feminism

Jessica Valenti, of feministing, has a post over at TPM Cafe on generational tension in the feminist movement.

A sorority at DePauw University in Indiana has recently come under fire for dismissing 23 sisters for being “socially awkward.” The women evicted from the Delta Zeta house included every woman who was overweight and the only black, Korean, and Vietnamese members.

The national officers of Delta Zeta claim to have booted the “undesirable” women because of their inability to attract new recruits to the sorority. As I read the unbelievably pathetic excuses given by the sorority for their actions, it occurred to me that in the same way Delta Zeta resorted to active exclusion as a recruitment strategy, mainstream feminists rely on passive exclusionary tactics to keep the movement “pure.”

In discussing this idea with some of my feminist and blogging peers, we all agreed that there’s a generational tension that comes out in subtle, though no less disturbing, ways. Being told you’re too young to speak on a panel (this happened to someone I know at the 2005 NOW conference); being lectured about how your opinions are naïve or misinformed (“you weren’t there!); being relegated to the “young feminist” table or forum at major conferences, having your accomplishments looked on warily because you didn’t “pay your dues,” getting emails about how all of your hard-working feminist blogging is for naught because your logo is sexist (cough, cough). Being a feminist is hard enough without having to defend yourself from attacks from within.

Mainstream feminism may not be kicking any women out of the treehouse, but it’s certainly not lowering the ladder, either.

Katha Pollitt responds:

Jessica, you’re not the first to point out that NOW, Feminist majority and other big feminist groups founded by 1960s activists have had trouble opening up leadership roles to young women. I’m not sure there’s anything particular to women in this–ie anything that justifies your analogy to that idiotic sorority. I mean, come on — Delta Whatsis expelled women who were insufficiently princessy, white, thin and compliant. How is that like not getting to sit on a panel at the ripe old age of 25 or so?

That said, I totally agree with you about the ingrown and resistant culture of organizational feminism, and so do lots of older feminists. Whether it’s generational, or the result of being in backlash-resistance mode for so long, or something about the particular people involved or what, it’s a serious issue. Fact is, a lot of organizations, from corporations to synagogues, find it hard to reframe the mission, hand over power and welcome new leaders with a different style and different allies.

Alon Levy weighs in:

Pollitt rebuts not so much Jessica’s argument as the argument she thinks she should be making. Jessica’s demand for giving young women a seat at the table isn’t some personal power thing, a question of daughters criticizing mothers but mothers not allowed to criticize daughters. It’s a specific demand that the feminist movement stop being so ineffective. Think of her as the Markos Moulitsas of American feminism, without the sanctimony.

When Jessica delves more into specifics, she talks about a lot more than generational tension. The feminist movement engages in scaremongering about Roe vs. Wade, which just doesn’t inspire anyone considering that abortion has been legal in the US for 34 years. NOW’s action alerts are so slow that blogs like Feministing are typically months ahead of them. Organizations like NOW and Feminist Majority use a command and control structure that’s reminiscent of machine politics.