Feminism Divided Against Itself: Cross-Generational Clashes

At the National Organization for Women’s annual conference in Washington, D.C., they were celebrating their 50th anniversary. There was memorabilia, a lot of stories, and an awful lot of Baby Boomer retiree feminists. I attended an early workshop on inter-generational alliances, where the two generations came together to talk about the knowledge and influence older feminists can bring to the table, especially as mentors for younger feminists.

I stood up to voice my concerns. Because a mentor-mentee relationship is not an equal one. And Millennials may be younger, but grew up on the whole with greater technological opportunities, often more connected with more sources of current information. We grew up digital natives, and the next generation will be even more wired for the future.

We have had from childhood profound capacities to talk to very different people from very different places all around the world, from many different cultures. I think it’s for this reason that there are so many more conversations about cultural competence and why it’s important, and why young people are often dominating those conversations and pushing intersectionality as absolutely vital to social justice.

Not all Baby Boomers resist learning something new from those younger. Many Baby Boomers are equally at home in cyberspace and connected with current trends and technology of communication. But repeatedly throughout my life, a few stubborn, calcified Baby Boomers who want to play the paternalistic teacher are really aggressive in the way they go about their approach to me and other young people. I was dismayed to see this throughout the weekend at NOW 2016.

The air of benevolent condescension was palpable to me. I winced as, behind me, a white male Baby Boomer addressed a white female Millennial about the conference.

“I have so much to learn,” she enthused.

“Yes,” he said with benevolent condescension. “It’s hard for me to be both a participant and a teacher.”

Ugh, yuck.

I wish it was only men doing this, because then sexism would be the problem, but the problem is so much deeper and broader.

I spoke to a woman who had gone to the conference 25 years ago in San Francisco. I asked her if there how much they discussed LGBT issues, given the setting, and she shook her head vehemently.

“Not at all,” she said. “Not at all.”

Throughout the celebration of 50 years of NOW I couldn’t find one person who had heard of the website Everyday Feminism. I admit that when I excitedly received the scholarship to go from the D.C. Chapter of NOW, I was hoping for the conference equivalent of that website. I wanted the feminism I’d tasted online and can’t get enough of; feminists like bell hooks, Francesca Ramsey, ceedling, Kat Blaque, Laci Green.

Though I am grateful beyond words for the opportunity D.C. NOW granted me, for the access to in-person conversations with feminists of all ages, in many respects I felt like I was watching a re-run of some of feminism’s glory days, whitewashed to cover the lack of intersectionality in past years and obvious lack of diversity in the present. Even as intersectionality was discussed for the future (in an all-too-brief workshop NYC NOW hosted, shunted from the main room into a smaller and overcrowded room) and many people of color were honored and invited to speak, the exclusionary feminism of NOW’s past was never discussed. I still felt it in the adultism of some of the overtly hostile older members during the voting of the resolutions.

It was pointed out during the voting that the vast majority of the attendees were well-off white women retirees. The speaker, to my great joy an older feminist, called for the need to reach out to younger feminists, people of color, and especially poor people who were unable to physically attend conferences to vote for NOW leaders. This spoke to my heart personally. Even with a scholarship my disabilities limited my participation, and for me online activism offers opportunities I otherwise would not have. But the speaker’s voice and those like her were in the minority, stacked against impassioned, angry, even paranoid voices of older members. Voting on key issues was clearly divided by age as I looked around the room in dismay. The younger generation were outnumbered.

I sat at a table with some Millennials on the last day and we discussed our disgruntlement with this situation, our sense of helplessness and frustration. I think I wasn’t the only disenfranchised younger feminist there. It came up in all my discussions with younger feminists, but older feminists seemed really uncomfortable with the subject—in a really familiar way I’ve been dealing with all my life.

Baby Boomers saw and forged huge changes in their activism throughout this country. What they achieved was remarkable, even more so for such limited technological resources to reach out to people, to gain support and numbers, and to fight against established and entrenched patriarchy and white supremacism. They were there for many monumental moments that could not have taken place through video conferencing, especially marches and assemblies on the National Mall, a short walk from the conference hotel.

I loved the movie ‘The Big Chill’ growing up. I still have a soft spot in my heart for it. Its themes of former activist college students reuniting over the death of one of their number and looking with dissatisfaction at what they had become and how far it strayed from their idealistic dreams of youth seem even more relevant now. There’s such pain in a sense of having spent college years railing against one’s oppressors and those in power, only to sacrifice one’s values for security, safety, and family and wind up working for powerful oppressors.

It can feel so shameful to face up to the reality that intersectionality presents: that you and I can be oppressed, and at the same time upholding systems that oppress others. Even as we continue to work as activists, our words and choices are by no means beyond scrutiny and reproach.

It’s uncomfortable to think of being wrong and to hold oneself accountable. It’s easy to become defensive if you’ve spent your whole life fighting just to have a voice. After all, being blamed and demonized have been silencing attacks on women for generations. But if we can’t talk about a problem we can’t change the situation, and exclusionary feminism was still very much present there.

Schrödinger’s Parent

All my life I have watched myself in situations as the youngest, and the differences in how I am treated by many Baby Boomers versus how they treat their contemporaries. Especially our opinions and contributions.

I’ve felt treated a certain way because of my age, assumptions implicit about my intelligence and the worth of my words and my lived experiences. There is an unconscious cultural idea we have been force-fed whether we agree consciously or not—that more years means more authority and correctness. (Alice Miller would probably say something about the 4th commandment here, but ‘respect your elders’ is a common socialization even in secular households, and obedience to parental figures is so drilled into children that it’s leveraged by predators.)

Sometimes more years means more years spent practicing bad mental and behavioral habits that hurt others and calcifying in one’s ways, as I well know from the people I grew up around. As a child people with post-graduate degrees treated me like a plaything. Years and education don’t automatically confer wisdom or worthiness.

I admit that this is a sore spot for me. I’m by no means unbiased, and yet my experiences are important for all the years of experiences I have to draw upon to call out this situation. My experiences have admittedly left me wary of any Baby Boomers who approach me, much like my experiences of violence at the hands of many men have left me cautious around males—the phenomenon described as ‘Schrödinger’s Rapist.’

A male-presenting individual may know he has good intentions, but I don’t know that. Because rapists don’t come with obvious signs, or they would never be successful. As a survival tactic I have to assume that I’m not safe alone with an unknown male until proved otherwise. Even if we become friends I know that most violence is committed by people with whom the victim is acquainted.

Similarly, when I’m approached by someone old enough to be my parent, I can’t assume they’re going to treat me and my point of view as equal. In my experience most people of my parents’ generation and older who do approach me wind up acting parental, condescending, dismissive of my experiences, knowledge, and opinions as less important than their own (except when I agree with and reinforce their views). I’m treated differently than they treat people of their own age. Yet when confronted with this information the worst offenders insist that this isn’t the case.

I feel targeted by out-of-control mothers displaying narcissistic self-absorption, and creeped out by the men old enough to be my father who seem to want an impressionable young woman—possibly to stroke their ego, liven up their life, or just have less experience at recognizing and calling out their bullshit, a woman who perhaps can’t hold her own against him. Because this happens to me so often (if I had a nickel for every time I could buy a private island), I’m left with a wariness of any Baby Boomer who approaches me, and have to consider them an unexploded parent until proven otherwise for my own safety.

Parent-to-child relationships, like mentor-mentee and teacher-student relationships, are by nature unequal. In these relationships, for example, consent is not possible, because one person wields more power. I dislike being dominated in this way. Baby Boomers bristle with defensiveness if I call out instances of domineering behavior, gaslighting me or insisting that they have my own best interests at heart—and refusing to see that that very statement in itself presumes dominance. I am the only judge of what is best for me.

There are Baby Boomers out there who are capable of an equal two-way relationship with me, who have enough self-awareness, who have worked on themselves enough, who have the humility to recognize that I have experiences and knowledge they lack, and can handle frank discussions of their behavior toward me. But the ones most likely to approach me are those with unresolved issues. And they’ve done a bang-up job of instilling an inherent intergenerational distrust in me. A Baby Boomer has to consistently treat me with respect and equality, must prove to me that they’re not seeking a power trip in friendship with me, just as males have to earn my trust that they’re not grooming me for their own self-gratification at my expense.

That sucks. I don’t like having these feelings regard entire groups of people based on age or gender, but these feelings are based on overwhelming personal experiences and not unfounded cultural stereotypes. These are precautions based on unequal power dynamics that are unfortunately very real. I ignore these realities at my own peril.

I’m sick of being condescended to. I’m sick of ‘eldersplaining.’ I’m not at all happy with the subtle benevolent condescension going on in the interactions I see and am involved in between many (not all) older and younger feminists. As long as we’re not talking about the problem it will continue to sabotage feminism internally and create disenfranchisement and prejudice both ways, as younger feminists like me dislike underrepresentation and lack of respect for our point of view, and older feminists dislike change and challenges to their point of view.

Just Because I Look Young Doesn’t Mean I’m Healthy

I’ve talked a lot about the adultism I experienced, but I also want to touch on unintentional ableism. Because that was there for me too, and all from older women.

Throughout the NOW conference I was subjected to the ‘pity party invitation’ opening gambit. An older woman would approach me and the very first words out of her mouth would be some complaint about her body, sometimes spoken in a joking tone, but always with the subtle (or sometimes overt) implication that I should treasure my health while I have it.

I’ve been putting up with this ‘pity me’ opener from older women (and sometimes men) my whole life, and the inevitable condescending “just wait until you get to be my age” that comes with it.

I have had chronic pain all my life. All. My. Life. I bristle when this ‘feel sorry for me, I’m old and I hurt’ gets shoved at me right off the bat because it seems to presume that I have no complaints of my own to compare. Nor do I want to compete in the Pain Olympics with this person who hasn’t even had the grace to introduce themselves to me. This blocks empathy in both directions.

I grew up in a cult whose entire membership seemed to consist of Baby Boomer hypochondriacs forever seeking the magic bullet cure to an increasing laundry list of symptoms while simultaneously repressing all unpleasant emotions and self-awareness so as to see no possible connections there. The companion to all their bitching and moaning was treating my pain as either histrionic faking, a ‘choice’ I was making, or possession by other beings. Certainly my pain was beneath contempt, or else grounds for some abusive and invasive so-called ‘therapy’ or what amounted to exorcism. This eventually led to me keeping all my complaints to myself to avoid further abuse, and years of unnecessary suffering before I was able to seek treatment.

So I admit this is personally triggering to me. I have issues about it. Just like someone who hates the sound of screaming babies, I loathe the sound of complaining elders. I’d be happy to never, ever again hear the bitching and moaning of any Baby Boomer about their body ever again ever. I have no way of knowing why this person is whining at me about their maladies, but I know they want some particular response or something from me, and whatever it is, I didn’t agree to it and resent what’s happening.

Additionally, I struggled just to get around the convention comfortably because of how freezing the rooms were, and how I sometimes needed pillows to cut down on the pain from sitting for hours, dragging a suitcase around the convention to hold coats and blankets and pillows.

I saw a blind woman at one point who had a person assisting her, and I felt shameful envy. Shameful because I can’t afford assistance to get my suitcase around to ensure my participation, and often got boxed into corners because my physical needs left me so encumbered. Compared with the solicitous assistance I experienced at ROOTS Week 2015, NOW 2016 was a spectacular letdown on the access front for me.

Courage to Change

This year Alternate ROOTS is celebrating its 40th anniversary. I read an article about their process of re-FullSizeRender (1)
imagining their entire organization in 2003 around racial justice, the trials and tribulations, the often heated discussions, but how it turned out to be deeply rewarding. The organization as a whole had to change. As an activist organization Alternate ROOTS feels deeply intersectional and has a lot more to offer me, including helping me to understand my white privilege and when to sit down and shut up.

NOW may have a lot of political clout but they’re noticeably dropping the ball big-time on integration. I saw the same mistakes I’ve seen in other organizations trying to bring in more young people and people of color—wanting us to come in and do things the same old way, rather than mutually change into a new integrated whole that represents all the desired demographics to their satisfaction. As well as integrating the advantages new technology presents for activism as a whole along with tried-and-true techniques.

For myself, my activism is directly tied to my survival and my rights as someone who struggles with disability and poverty. Trying to get my intersectional activism on at NOW was like trying to practice advanced mathematics with people who were still struggling with basic arithmetic. The younger feminists I met, especially those that the D.C. Chapter of NOW granted scholarship to in order to include more young people, were fantastic to talk to. They seemed to be up on intersectionality and walking the talk. But on the whole I felt like I had to spend a lot of my effort explaining Intersectionality 101, and having that be the main thrust of my activist effort.

I don’t want to spend what little energy and participation I can muster on explaining intersectionality. I need it to already be there. I need it to be in the foundational principles in order to participate meaningfully in any activist organization. If I have to fight just to get respect for my voice within the organization, if I have push myself past my own limits just to participate, I won’t have any fight left for the systems that oppress us.

I don’t want to be oppressed in organizations that are fighting to end oppression, y’all. I know this seems like a no-brainer but in practice it’s a delicate, complicated, and ongoing process. I don’t expect it’ll always be perfect but having seen it work better I want to see more of that, and at least hope for movement in that direction.

I don’t want to be disenfranchised, condescended to, tokenized, or encumbered by my differences in activist spaces. I get enough of that everywhere else. I’m adapting and growing to get along in a world that’s not built for me. I want to be surrounded by adaptable people who are growing right along with me. I don’t need everyone to be experts in everything about intersectionality. I do need to see demonstrated humility and respect for different voices, and willingness to learn from each other.

I want to be in activist spaces that are already inherently diverse. It shows that they’re doing something right. If I wind up somewhere that’s skewed toward a particular demographic—especially if it’s an older organization—I’m on my guard.

I believe that feminism is progressive. I believe that the progress it’s made has been largely positive, and that for better or worse, there’s no turning back. I don’t believe it’s always going to be comfortable for everyone, and failures do and will happen and provide crucial learning opportunities.

I believe that most exclusion and disenfranchisement is unconscious, systemic, and socialized, and the only way to overcome it is to drag it out in the light and take it apart. Together, and with humility and the courage to change.

            If we want millennials to make contributions to our organizations, we can’t insist that they operate in the same way baby boomers do. In other words, we can’t say we want difference and then ask people who are different from the dominant group to do their best impression of those who are already in the majority. Why? Because people… will feel uncomfortable if we insist that they change who they are or cover what makes them different and adopt the same values and mannerisms of the dominant culture. This discomfort often causes to them to be less productive or less committed to the organization, and then they leave. Just as troubling, we will miss out on the power of diversity. We won’t have the benefit of the different perspectives and approaches that allow groups to better solve problems and make more accurate predictions. Our business, nonprofit, and faith communities won’t be as prosperous and relevant, and our personal lives will not be as rich.

            …We baby boomers, for example, say we want to understand and work with millennials in our organization, but we quickly revert to adultism, bossing them around and assuming we know best. Then we wonder why these young people don’t seem as engaged in our organization and leave so quickly.

—from ‘What if I Say the Wrong Thing?: 25 Habits for Culturally Effective People’ by Vernā A. Myers

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