Intergenerational feminism matters. And when it works well, it is magic. When we lay aside the all too often arbitrary distinction of waves, I believe we find more that connects than divides. I am convinced of the remarkable importance of these relationships, even if they are as difficult as they are rewarding. The sad reality is, we don’t really have models for these relationships which is, I think, where the difficulty comes from. They aren’t meant to be unidirectional relations of mentor and mentee. Learning, support, guidance – it ought to flow in both directions in a sisterhood that spans age and embraces all forms of diversity. If we could learn to listen more and judge less, forgive each other our misunderstandings and gaps in knowledge, and acknowledge the historical specificity and cultural construction of women’s experience and feminist identity, then we could forge bonds that empower us all and move the movement in ways not yet imagined.
I am not sure where my interest in intergenerational feminism came from. More than likely it is tied to my love of history, which is what drew me into the world of women’s activism in the first place. Feminism wasn’t an overt part of my childhood but strong women were. Their example and my own bookish introspection meant that by my teen years I was questioning double standards, pointing out inequalities, and finding power in feminism. By the end of my 20s I had served as the president of the largest statewide feminist organization in the country and at 33, I have 15 years in the movement. My adult years have all been in service to preserving our legacy and advancing the lives of women and girls. My path through feminism created spaces in which I worked alongside women of all ages. Through these years I experienced unfortunate moments of hostility simply as a result of my age. More often I have faced silent dismissal, relegation to the children’s table. Fortunately, such moments have typically been surpassed by support, solidarity, and encouragement (in quality, if not in quantity).
I can only speak from my experiences, my side of the generational divide. But I have been working on this issue for years, cultivating my own relationships and encouraging others to do the same. I still find myself so frustrated as I observe the misunderstandings, missed opportunities, and mistakes that occur when we let age divide us.
As a rising feminist engaging in cross-generational activism I have learned that stereotypes of second wave feminism and veteran feminists do more damage than good and obscure a more useful, representative history. We are much better served by getting to know our older sisters and developing a sense of past feminisms through these relationships. Understanding their perspectives will also add richness and nuance to how we view our own issues. While building these relationships can at times be difficult, we learn cooperation and respect if we work through the conflict. Bringing these relationships into our lives doesn’t mean we have to ask for permission – we are already feminists with every right to assume leadership and carry on the legacy of the movement. We also have the right and the duty to reject and revise the tools and ideology that do harm or no longer serve us. When our older sisters challenge or question us we gain the opportunity to articulate our positions and make connections. This said, claiming our place and embarking on this journey is more productive and rewarding when done with respect and acknowledgement of those who precede us. Through chance lunch seating, shuttle rides to the airport, a shared glass of wine, strategy meetings on red couches, and late night phone calls, I have come to understand that laughter, pain, love, insecurity, pride, and a desire to feel useful transcend age and unite us all. These small moments matter for in them are often great opportunities for change. We ought to recognize any opportunity to build relationships with our sisters because friendship, love, and respect is the foundation of our movement. Allies can often be found in unexpected places and sometimes our older sisters get us in ways we never could have imagined. And honestly, it sure is nice to hear someone say occasionally, you are right where you need to be and you know just how to do this-trust yourself.
I wish all veteran feminists better understood that my claiming a place in the movement is not meant to push you out, take your torch, or make you obsolete. We do recognize that you paved the way and made possible the equalities we have today. It may seem that such rights are taken for granted by most young women; that they are such matter of fact aspects of our daily lives speaks to your successes. Rising feminists get it. We are here to protect all you have gained as well as fight on the barricades of our own times. My issues are often different than yours. We all need to be at the table in order to truly compose an inclusive movement; you cannot speak for me anymore than I can you. While we may not have as many years in the movement as you, we still have valuable experiences and important contributions to make. Think about what you accomplished in the earliest years of your activism – what magic! Today’s feminist activism often takes different shapes than it has in your lives. This does not mean that we are any less committed or any less present. We are everywhere. Our feminism flourishes on campuses and in labor unions, on the internet and in third wave publications, on film and in music. Sometimes we uses the tools you created, but other times we find it necessary to reevaluate past feminist ideologies or practices. This doesn’t mean we are discounting the importance of your work and all you achieved. We want to learn from you but we want to do so on an equal footing. Talking at us or dictating the terms of our belonging or our relationships only serves to alienate us. When we share the talking and listening equally you might just find that you can learn a thing or two from us. I want to thank you, work alongside you, and assure you that your legacy will be honored and protected.
Fleeting thoughts in need of much greater detail, this sketch is my way of working through my thoughts on what divides and what might unite. Ultimately, we don’t have to understand everything about each another, but we do need to find ways to support and empower each of our sisters. Ask me what I know, what I want to learn, what skills I have to offer, and what I need from you. Then I’ll do the same. Let us surprise one another and delight in all that we are capable of accomplishing together.