The Challenges at the Core of Feminist Agenda Remain

July 08, 2015 | By Judith Warner

When I was in my early 20s, a self-described feminist with an almost visceral distaste for what I understood to be the modern women’s movement, I couldn’t wait for the moment when the baby boomers before me might start to shut up —just a little bit — so that the voice of my generation could rise.

I’d love to believe that the current critique of Hillary Clinton-style feminism by a newly rising generation of millennial women rested upon something real and substantive. Unfortunately, that’s just not true.

My generation (the immediate post-boomers, with years of birth starting in 1961, according to the cohort chroniclers William Strauss and Neil Howe), didn’t yet have any sort of identifiable voice — and as the sad “X” would convey, we arguably didn’t have much of an identity to claim, either. But what we were not, without question, was the baby boomers. And what our voice would not sound like when it finally emerged (I, at least, was sure) was the perennially over-excited boomer roar of self-discovery and self-revelation that had served as the background noise for the entirety of our sentient lives.

I’d love to believe that the current critique of Hillary Clinton-style feminism by a newly rising generation of young women rested upon something real and substantive. Genuine changes in American society. Real progress on women’s issues. A deeply transformed reality that could make a sensibility like Clinton’s, forged in the battles between reform and reaction of the 1960s, truly outmoded.

Unfortunately, as we all know, that’s just not true. The basic needs that form the core of the feminist agenda — for equal rights, equal pay, basic dignity and bodily integrity, just for starters — are as much with us today as they were 20 years ago. The solutions we need are the same, too. Which means that, as was the case 20 years ago, the young feminist reproach is, for the most part, more about style than substance.

The critiques that today’s young feminists lob our way — that we’re out of touch and elitist, self-protective, jealous of our turf and, generally, sort of embarrassing — are just about exactly those that “Third Wave” feminists threw at our elders in the early 1990s. Then, as now, young women declared that old-style, no-fun feminism was dead, and that something new, young, lipstick-clad, and sexy was rising to replace it. What’s different today, of course, is that the current crop of young women are Millennials — which means they expect their concerns to be not just heard, but validated; turned into a Ted Talk, aired in a regular pundit slot on MSNBC. Twenty years ago, we knew we’d have to wait our turn.

In a political landscape where real progress on women’s issues long ago slowed to a crawl, questions of who owns feminism — who brands it, and speaks it, and tweets it and “does” it take on enormous significance — because “doing feminism,” in the absence of making progress, is what we’ve got. Underneath all that, I also sense — the way I, of course, could not when I was a 20-something — the basic, epidermic irritation of youth with its elders, a collective eyeroll of the sort that any mother of a teenage girl knows all too well.

If today’s young women really want to break from the past, they’ll have to figure out a way to do better.